Words: Team MERRELL ǀ Photos: Various
Adventure Racing World Championships TEAM MERRELL RACE REPORT
Photo credit: Nacho Cembellin
#33 | DO IT NOW Magazine • 1
Graham 'Tweet' Bird
Photo credit: Nacho Cembellin
2 â€˘ DO IT NOW Magazine | #33
The 2013 Adventure Racing World Championships (ARWC), in Costa Rica, had been on Team MERRELL’s calendar for over a year. The event, staged over an 815 km course from 2 to 12 December, was extreme, tough, long, exhilarating, rewarding, challenging and most of all a true adventure. Over the past year, we've been fed a vast amount of information via newsletters and emails from Race Director Pongo Baker and having soaked up all the information, we knew we were in for a tough race. One that would be decided more by survival and completing the course, rather than pure racing. Something that we felt suited us Addicts.
Our established Addicts foursome (Graham Bird, Tatum Prins, Hanno Smit and Donovan Sims) had not raced together since February 2012 and we looked forward to racing together again. Unfortunately, this was not to be, as Tatum, who had given birth to her first child in March and was scheduled to make a competitive return to the team in time for the ARWC, was unable to. So we drafted Susan Carter-Brown, who has Expedition Africa under her belt and is known to have mental toughness and an ability to hang in for the long haul. Qualities we thought were important for a successful adventure racer. Then the news of Donovan’s leukemia diagnosis just eight days before we flew out was devastating and hit us hard. He is as tough as nails and all his AR experience will be put to good use now as he beats the leukemia. This opened the door for our ever loyal and faithful reserve Craig Carter-Brown. Craig has been a regular in the team over the past two years, filling in for Hanno at EA 2012 and for myself at EA 2013, so it was great to finally be able to offer him an international race.
Registration and gear check proved painless and quick on Friday evening. The 815 km race was spread over 12 legs, and based on the information we had received, we estimated approximately a 142 hours for the race, requiring nine different food packs for us to resupply with and carry. This estimate was largely a 'guestimate', as we did not have the maps, only the predicted times from the race directors. We eventually handed in 260 kg of gear, which included our biking equipment, kayaking equipment, clothing, transition food, trail food and spares. The course looked epic with massive paddling legs early in the race, then a massive trek after mid camp, which we felt would be a the crucial leg in the race. If you could get through the long trek unscathed, then you had a good chance of completing the course. Our plan going into the event was to focus on ourselves and race our pace, to ensure we lasted the six days that we predicted. We did not want to get caught up in mini races within the event that would tire and blow us. Over the days leading up to the event, we'd had many team talks about what to expect and what we hoped to achieve for the race. With Hanno and I having raced a number of international races, we knew that we had the
ability to mix it up at the front end of the field and that a top five was well within our capabilities. We felt that if everything felt right for us, we could be on the podium. Though Craig and Susan agreed with these assessments, I’m not sure they believed it before the start, having not experienced an event of this calibre before. We all agreed we needed to look after our bodies and feet, to ensure we could maintain a consistent pace throughout the race and be strong in the second half.
Race day involved a six-hour bus trip that left San José at 4 a.m. on Monday for the start on the Panama Border, in the south of the country. Finally, at 14h20 on Monday, 2 December we started with a short 1 km sprint to our bike boxes, where we had to assemble the bikes, plot the maps and get out onto a 92 km mountain bike leg. It was chaos with 65 teams (280 athletes) all jostling for position.
LEG 1 - MOUNTAIN BIKE, 92 KM We decided on a route option that would keep us up on the ridge before descending to collect checkpoint (CP) 3. This proved a slower option and we had to battle all the other teams coming up the path as we descended down, only to be caught behind the back/mid teams on the hike-a-bike back up. We finished this leg in approximately thirtieth position and about 3 hours behind the leaders. Not the start we had hoped for. This leg took us well into the early hours of night one, with us completing the leg at around 03h00.
LEG 2 - PADDLE, 65 KM We settled quickly on the boats, knowing that paddling was one of our strengths. The paddle was up the west coast of Costa Rica in the Bay of Dulce. A consistent pace saw us clawing back positions, finishing this leg at 14h20. After 24 hours of racing, we were just outside the top ten and still around 3 hours behind the leaders.
LEG 3 - TREK, 27 KM The leg over a peninsula to the mangrove swamps on the Pacific coastline required us to carry all our paddling gear (PFDs, paddles, trolleys, etc). Hanno had made us a great trolley for portaging our kayaks and this allowed us to load up our trolley with all the gear and backpacks for the trek. We completed this leg at 20h00 on night two.
LEG 4 - PORTAGE, 10 KM / PADDLE, 55 KM We picked up the two kayaks, loaded them onto the trolley and headed out, chasing the top seven teams. We hooked up with Team Silva and Team Columbia Vidaraid and eventually found the put in and CP. The paddle proved challenging with many mangrove channels (not all on the map) and tides to contend with. We came across Team Seagate, who had been searching for CP14 for many hours. At around 09h30 we stopped for our first sleep of around 1 hour and 40 minutes on the boats. Finally, at 19h00 on the start of night three and after 23 hours we completed this leg in sixth position, just under 6 hours behind the leaders.
LEG 5 - MOUNTAIN BIKE, 101 KM After a brief 15 km of flat and a ferry across the river, we went uphill for an 800 m ascent to the 'Superman' zip line. The zip line was an amazing 2 km 'fly through' the forest at speeds in excess of 100 km/h. The bike ride took us east and inland towards the high mountains. Once back on our bikes, we decided to stop for a 1 hour and 30 minutes sleep just before sunrise on the third morning.
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We did not have a great ride and battled to keep a consistent and fast pace going. I also made a navigational error that cost us around 45 to 50 minutes and precious energy. The heat was extreme and three cooldrink and ice cream stops saved us. We were surprised when we finished this leg at 16h00 on day three, to find ourselves in eight position. We had however lost a lot of time to the leaders and were almost 10 hours and 30 minutes behind. At the compulsory 4-hour stop, we decided to stay longer in transition and have a good, solid 4-hour sleep. Our thinking was that we would not need to stop to sleep that night and would hopefully only need a brief nap on the trail the following night. So after a good meal, shower, and 4-hour sleep, we set off on the 92 km trek in ninth position, around 14 hours behind the leaders. There were also a number of teams a few hours ahead of us.
LEG 6 - TREK, 92 KM This trek involved a steady, gradual climb on a well-maintained path from 1,200 m to Costa Rica’s highest peak at 3,800 m. We left at 22h00 on the fourth night and eventually reached the peak just as the sun was rising. We were greeted by mist, rain, wind, and freezing conditions. A stark contrast to the high temperature we had endured on the bike the day before. All our compulsory gear was on and we knew that if we stopped moving, we would be in trouble. The descent down a ridgeline led us to a hut that marked the start of the 'Native Indian' reserve. Special permission had been granted by the president of Costa Rica for us to traverse this land, which is not open to the public at all. We entered the jungle proper, and I mean proper jungle - a 2,000 m vertical descent in thick jungle and on a very disused and muddy path that became more visible and muddier as more teams descended. Slipping down would be more appropriate. Once on the valley floor it was more tricky nav, or should I say 'lucky' nav to find a way through the jungle to the next CP. We were now well into the fifth night and decided on a 1 hour and 30 minute sleep. We finished this hike in eight position at sunset on day six, after 43 hours, and were 16 hours behind the leaders. Though an extremely long and tough leg, it was a privilege to go through the 'tribal' lands and true jungle areas. This leg will not be forgotten for a long time.
LEG 7 - MOUNTAIN BIKE, 40 KM We realised that the teams from fourth position would not make it through the Dark Zone at TA8 and onto the rafting section, and would be restarted at 04h30 the next morning. This meant that we were effectively in the race for fourth position with these teams, as it was a 40 km ride across to TA8. We made a strategy call to rather sleep for 4 hours at TA7, to recover from the trek and then ride across to TA8 in the hope of getting there before the 04h30 restart. We had a great sleep and the ride across was good, however we did misjudge the timing a bit and got to the TA at 04h30, just as the other teams were leaving. After receiving new maps and packing the bikes, we left transition 45 minutes after the four teams ahead of us.
LEG 8 - TREK/RAFT, 33 KM This was a fun leg on a guided raft through grade 3 and 4 rapids on a stunning river that wound through some amazing jungle, before a general flat-water paddle to the TA and kayaks. We maintained our gap of around 45 minutes to 1 hour behind the four teams, finishing this leg at 08h30 on the morning of the seventh day.
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LEG 9 - KAYAK, 89 KM This was a long, hard slog as we flat-water paddled down the river to the west coast of Costa Rica, turning onto some canals that ran parallel with the Caribbean coastline. We had major sleep monsters on this leg, so we opted to get some sleep in the hope it would make us stronger and fresher for the final trek and mountain bike leg. We took turns sleeping on the boats, with each of us getting approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes of sleep. At the only CP on this leg, we found out about Team Seagate's withdrawal. We finished this paddle at around 03h00 on the seventh night, now in seventh position.
LEG 10 - TREK, 18 KM After negotiating a muddy path through the jungle, we emerged onto farm roads that lead to the transition. Passing the Brazilian team, BMS, on this trek and seeing the other Brazilian team, QasarLontra, in the distance gave us that extra boost for the final cycle leg. At 09h30 on day eight, Tecnu and Adidas were battling over third, and were only 2 hours down the road. After the Dark Zone split of the top two teams, we were now 20 hours behind the leaders.
LEG 11 - MOUNTAIN BIKING, 156 KM At the start of this leg I was suffering from major sleep monsters and couldn't keep my eyes open. We were losing time to the Brazilian teams who had left the TA just before us. An inspired stop at a café for ice lollies and cokes pulled me right and we set off at pace chasing. It wasn’t long until we came upon both Brazilian teams as they searched for the next CP. We managed to find the CP before them and built a lead. However, in my sleep deprived state, I battled to find the road north to Nicaragua and we did about 20 km extra and lost around 1 hour and 30 minutes to the two Brazilian teams. Passing the CP at the Nicaragua Border at sunset, we again passed QasarLontra who had bike problems. They told us BMS was about 1 hour and 30 minutes ahead and in our minds we thought the push for fifth was over. However, to our surprise, as we approached CP48, we came across BMS who had been searching for the CP for a few hours. We had a perfect line into the CP and managed to get away before they saw us. Now in fifth position we pushed hard on the final 15 km cycle to reach the canopy and rafting section that would take us to the end.
LEG 12 - CANOPY/RAFTING, 23 KM This leg is just one massive blur. I sleep walked and paddled this entire leg. The night rafting section was down grade 2 and 3 rapids, and our poor guide had to continually shout to keep us awake. Finally, at 02h50 on our eighth night, after 180 hours and 20 minutes (7.5 days) of hard-core racing, we crossed the line in fifth place. There was no fanfare, no applause, no crowd, just us and a dark city square. Johanna, Pongo and Craig Bycroft from the organisation were there together with Craig and Sue’s mom. This did not matter to us. Finishing an adventure race is about one’s self and the team. It is only the four of you who can truly appreciate and understand what you have gone through over the 180 hours to get you there. Each with our own pain, suffering, joy, happiness and understanding. For all of us, it was our longest expedition race. For Sue, it was only her second and Craig his third.
In the end, we were 12 hours and 10 minutes behind the eventual winners, Team Thule. We had a great final day and half and managed to hold it together, closing the gap and gaining two positions. Looking back, I am happy with our race and very content with our position. It was amazing to watch Susan grow in confidence in the later stages as we finally built up to the speeds our team is more accustomed to. Susan is one tough cookie and has the mind to push through it. Craig is a machine and looked after his sister brilliantly throughout the race. Both now realise they have the ability to race comfortably at the top end of the field and fight for the top spot. Hanno was the usual rock-steady yoda, ensuring the team maintained the consistency throughout the whole race. For me, I had one of my strongest races physically and mentally, and did not enter the dark places of suffering that I've grown accustomed to.
A FINAL THANKS TO PONGO, ANTONIO, JOHANNA AND THEIR TEAM FOR A FANTASTIC EVENT. A TRUE EXPEDITION RACE. IT CHALLENGED, TESTED AND PUSHED US TO THE LIMIT. SOMETHING WE LONG FOR AND THAT KEEPS US COMING BACK TO EXPEDITION RACING.
Photo credit: Nacho Cembellin
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Photo credit: Andreas Strand
Hanno 'Smelly' Smit 6 â€˘ DO IT NOW Magazine | #33
As I sit here trying to recollect the sequence of events that have played themselves off over the past two weeks, it is the enormity of this event that grabs me. Not only was it the race that matters, the World Champs, it was also a race designed around our team’s strengths and it was a race in tropical Latin America, warm in climes and warm in cultural blood. I say that the race was designed around our strengths. We enjoy and revel in the longer races. Races that take us more than four days. This race would take us seven-and-a-half days to complete and we would finish 12 hours behind the leaders, Thule, and only 4 hours behind the two teams in front of us, Adidas and Tecnu. It was also a race that consisted of few legs, but giant legs and testers in their own right. Thinking back it is always easy to mention the 'ifs and the buts'. Realistically, that is the case with all the teams, so it is never worth mentioning these probabilities. At the end of the day we raced a new and untested team at the highest level and pulled a fifth position out of the bag, the best placing at a World Champs for us. I am extremely happy with the outcome, as we raced with not only an untested team but we raced against what must have been the strongest line-up of international teams yet to have assembled on the starting line of a World Champs. The course was simple; it was brutally long and exposed any weakness in any discipline with it. One could get away with being slightly unprepared for the paddling discipline if there are three 30 km paddle legs, but if you face two 60 km paddle legs and then a third paddle leg of 90 km, you will pay the price for not being prepared properly.
A BRIEF OUTLINE OF THE COURSE
We were bussed from the registration venue in San José to the Panama Border, where we started with a relatively short bike leg of 90 km. The tone for the race was set later on this leg, as the regular rain set in and created gluey mud that we would encounter the whole race. It was also clear from the outset that there would be plenty of hiking and carrying of bikes on the biking legs. The race did not start well for us as we made an unfortunate decision to travel along the Panamanian Border to our first notable PC point. Seagate seem to have been the only other team with the same idea as us, but the mass of the field, including all the South American teams, followed a very different route option. This effectively placed us behind most of the teams in very difficult forest single track and created a big bottleneck that saw us drop back to the mid twenties come the end of this leg. We prepared our inflatable boats, loaded to the brim with pumps, a repair kit and portage dolly, and set off on the first 60 km paddle leg into the Gulf of Dulce. This leg was followed by a 30 km portage with our paddling gear, but without the boat, only to meet our boat again on the other side, which we then had to portage another 10 km to reach the mangrove waterways. This leg saw us eating into the lead teams, as we employed a more versatile dolly, as opposed to the smaller-wheeled dollies used by other teams. It was tricky finding CPs here, as the maps were not in great detail and we ended up wasting a lot of time, but all the teams were in the same boat (excuse the pun).
A tactical error on our part in the mangroves saw us lose significant time as we decided to sleep for two hours in a mosquito-infested channel, while waiting for the tide to allow us through. The tide did not raise the water level enough for us to paddle through the channel, so we had to paddle the long way around and lost much of the advantage we had gained on the paddle leg. Next was a 100 km bike leg that would carry us into mid camp, with a compulsory four-hour stop. The hiking leg of around 95 km followed, with more than 4,000 m of vertical ascent. It included a big climb to the highest volcano in Costa Rica, where we were engulfed by severe weather and forced to wear all our clothing. Then a slow ridge descent, eventually lowering into the tropical valleys and mud for the rest of the hike. It was more a test of maintaining the feet and bodies rather than racing the opposition. We opted to have a 4 hour sleep at the end of this hike and got on our bikes for a relatively short 40 km bike and 1,500 m vertical ascent. This leg saw us arrive at the rafting leg as the Dark Zone lifted and we set off at first light. Although the rafting was super exciting, it did not allow for much time to gain on the other teams. The end of the rafting signalled the start of a 90 km paddle leg to the east coast. At this stage, most of us had only about 10- to 12-hours sleep by the fifth day of racing, so we decided to use the current and sleep in our boats during the day. That night we hit the swamp zone, which had no current, and the torrential rain made sleeping almost impossible. This was an extremely difficult period of play for us, as most of us were hit hard by the sleep monster. With daylight breaking, we were on a 30 km hike to the long 156 km bike leg that would take us to the Nicaraguan Border. We knew that the bike leg would be a fast-moving one and we needed to keep the sleep monster at bay for the duration of this leg, as it would determine success or failure. It started off badly as Tweet (Graham Bird) was falling into the deep groove of the sleep attraction. Luckily, we fed him an ice-cold lollipop that got him out of the groove. We decided to attack the course right to the finish line, as it would be the only way to steer clear of the sleep monster.
APART FROM LOSING OUR WAY SLIGHTLY TOWARDS THE NICARAGUAN BORDER, WE MANAGED TO GET TO THE LAST TRANSITION IN FRONT OF THE KIWI/BRAZIL COMBO OF BSM AND THE BRAZILIAN QASARLONTRA TEAM. THE LAST LEG, WHICH INCLUDED SOME FUN ZIP LINING AND RAFTING, WAS NO LONGER A RACE SO WE SWITCHED OFF, KNOWING WE HAD SECURED OUR FIRST-EVER FIFTH PLACE, AND ENDED UP SNORING OUR WAY TO THE OFFICIAL FINISH LINE. A beautiful race in a beautiful setting, made more beautiful by a brilliant performance, Pura Vida (this is living) from Costa Rica!
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Susan 'Snoozie' Carter-Brown
Photo credit: Andreas Strand
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WE ARRIVED IN THE BUSTLING CITY OF SAN JOSE ON 27 NOVEMBER AND CHECKED INTO OUR FIVE-STAR RADISSON HOTEL FOR A FEW DAYS OF PRE-RACE PREPARATIONS. Such luxury, lazing around
and eating ad lib was soon going to be a blurry memory of a different life ... but for the time being, we made the most of it. Being in the capital city and not able to even venture out on our bikes for fear of being knocked over in the wild traffic, we were well ready for action when were loaded into a fleet of buses and started the long trip to the start in San Vito, on 2 December. And then we were off at a high-speed 1 km sprint to our bike boxes for the first 95 km cycle leg. This ride welcomed us to the World Championships and was an indication of the tough conditions, route and terrain that lay ahead for every single leg of the race to come. We found ourselves carrying our bikes down and up a muddy, eroded gully to the checkpoint, and then up a slippery jungle path in the rain to get back onto the ‘road’. Tough, unrelenting conditions. I find adventure racing quite ominous when passing through isolated countryside. So far, in Costa Rica, I was comforted by the warm, kind spirit that pervades the small Central American communities. Passing through the rural villages, the locals were warm and hospitable, offering support, directions or water. A man on his horse heading home guided us to the turn we were to take. A family cheered and offered us water from bottles out the fridge. Onto leg two, a paddle across Drake Bay. Here we managed to pick up quite a few places, as the previous route choice had set us back in the field. It was clear from this point that our paddling was strong and we needed to exploit this advantage during the race. After the paddle, in true South African character, ‘ons boere het a plan gemaak’ and we hooked up our dolly to carry all our paddling gear and kit to the next transition. This was the genius of Smelly-Hanno Smit, so I will leave it up to him to elaborate. All I can say is I really enjoyed having a break from carrying a backpack and could breathe easy for the 18 km hike. What I enjoyed more was the looks we got from other teams laden with all their kit, slogging their dollies behind them as we skipped casually by. Nice one, Smelly. Then onto the mangroves for more paddling. This leg was certainly not a high point for me. Foul, mosquito-infested swamps that caused minor cuts to become infected, paddling upstream against the tide, long stretches between checkpoints, harsh sun and no fresh water, being tided out of checkpoints. What a slog. I paddled the whole race with Craig, my brother, and I really enjoyed racing with him. Craig continuously looked out for me and assisted as much as possible. Of course, Tweet and Smelly were there too, but having the opportunity to go through the high and lows with my big brother was extra special. I have learnt thus far in AR that just when you start to think, "Ok, I think I am about done with this stretch of the race, I am ready for the transition," you must take the time already completed and multiply it by three or four to give you an indication of how long the leg will actually be. And in this World Championship, it was to be even more the case!
The paddle ended with a long grind to the transition, which was aided, at least, by the QasarLontra team, who we diced over the last 15 km or so. We had under-catered on our water supplies for the day out on the swamps and were fairly dehydrated upon arrival. Our transition took a bit longer than usual as we replenished our stores and ourselves. Spirits were high as we cycled through the palm trees that night, jumped on a small boat and were ferried across the river. The race was well underway and we were getting every bit of what we expected from this tropical country and more. A massive 1,000 m climb awaited us, as we trudged our bikes up one twisting corner and the next towards a spotlight high up in the sky and where our next checkpoint lay. We had now been racing non-stop for over 55 hours and those of us suffering from sleep monsters were about to get some welcome relief. There's nothing like zip lining head first at 120 km an hour through a tree canopy to wake up! This cycle leg was a gruelling one and it wasn’t long before we decided to have our second sleep. One of the many things I love about AR, is how it amplifies the simple pleasures in life. A drink of water at the top of a hill, for example, never tastes so cool and sweet as when you are racing; neither does the wind in your hair (and relief on your arse) as you descend down a smooth road after an arduous climb; not to mention the delight of a real toilet en route. In this case, it was sleep, beautiful sleep. Sleep in our full muddy kit, on the wet, itchy grass, propped up behind a leaking water tank, with mozzies, but this simple pleasure never felt so wondrous.
ONE-HOUR-AND-FORTY-MINUTES LATER WE WERE OFF AGAIN. IT WAS A LONG, HOT RIDE THAT DAY ONLY MADE BEARABLE BY THE NUMEROUS ICE CREAMS WE BOUGHT FROM LOCAL STORES AND THE SOUR ORANGES WE PICKED FROM GARDENS ALONG THE WAY. I am relatively new to the sport of AR and had a lot to learn in this race. For example, the importance of continually hydrating and eating right up until the transition. At the end of this bike leg, and once more later on the route, I didn’t hydrate properly and blew completely about 15 km out of transition. Thanks to the team for carrying me into transition and for their patience as I learn and gain experience in this challenging sport. Thanks too to PVM for the sustenance and replenishment your products provided along the way. Mid camp set us right with some good food and sleep, and it was onwards onto the tougher portion of the race, which started with a 90 km trek up Chirripó volcano and into the Costa Rican jungles. As we reached the summit, the new day blasted us with freezing wind and rain as we hiked along the ridge line to the checkpoint. I have never been in such an exposed environment in my life. Costa Rica exposed us to the extremes – both freezing alpine and humid hot conditions. Throughout the race I was always 100% comfortable in my Merrell gear. The conditions during the race proved that Merrell’s range and quality of product could truly cater for all environments, leaving us with no excuse but to get out there and get going!
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After traversing Chirripó’s ridgeline, the route dropped down towards the jungle. I thoroughly enjoyed this section of the trek. We had a short stop at a local shelter, where once again we were treated to local hospitality, some home-made chicken soup (complete with floating chicken pieces - not for the weak of stomach) and good advice. Things were about the get hectic. What followed was a six-hour trudge-slip-curse-fall-curse-slide, 2,000 m descent along a barely discernible jungle path. The jungle is so thick and we were so thick inside the jungle that a green claustrophobia hung constantly in my lungs. Needless to say, we eventually made it out alive, but the trek didn’t get much easier. Unrelenting steep ascents and descents allowed us no comfort, and our legs and feet were now tender and aching. We had to pass through a mandatory medical checkpoint just before transition to see if we were still in a condition to continue the race after being in the wilds for more than 40 hours. I can say I have definitely felt better (it's not everyday my resting heart rate sits at 124 bpm), but we were released and hustled to transition a few kilometres down the road. Here we slept for 4 hours before we got back on our bikes for a 40 km ride to the river.
I WAS DETERMINED TO RIDE HARD THIS LEG AND TRY MAKE UP SOME OF THE TIME I HAD COST THE TEAM WHEN I BLEW THE PREVIOUS DAY. I WAS HAPPY WITH MY EFFORTS, AND WITH SOME EXCELLENT NAVIGATING BY TWEET AND ALL-ROUND TEAMWORK, WE TURNED A RELATIVELY STRENUOUS RIDE INTO A PLEASANT SIX-HOUR MORNING SESSION. We arrived at the transition at 04h30, just as four other teams were released from the Dark Zone and jogged off towards the river. We followed in hot pursuit. Throughout the race, I think the four of us looked forward to the rafting as a kind of a holiday from the race. We were going to run grade 4 rapids and see awesome scenery. Craig and Smelly’s faces of delight, as we paddled down the river, confirmed that our expectations were exceeded – and encapsulated the Costa Rican motto ‘Pura Vida!’, meaning ‘This is living!’ Tweet on the other hand, an old river rat and seasoned paddler, decided now was a good time to catch up on sleep and dozed his way down the river, only to be woken now and then by a sudden drop or spray. All too soon, the gradient flattened and the rapids ran out. It was now up to us to paddle our kayaks the remaining 90 km to the next checkpoint. The network of canals that we traversed through the night is a means of a transport for Costa Ricans. It was interesting to see ‘road signs’ directing boats to various locations. It was a long night, a very long night. Despite the singing and silly games to keep awake, the sleep monsters were constantly looming.
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WITH A STRATEGY OF ONE PERSON PADDLING WHILE THE OTHER SLEPT, WE WERE ABLE TO MAKE CONSISTENT HEADWAY. THE FINAL CHECKPOINT WAS FOUND UP A WINDY NARROW CANAL AND WHERE SEVERAL PAIRS OF ORANGE ALLIGATOR EYES PEERED OUT AT US. We left our paddling kit behind and trekked 18 km out of the swampy mud, onto a good road and trotted into the bike transition. At this stage, we were positioned seventh and could see QasarLontra and BMS just ahead of us. Just as the race started with a sprint and dice, it was to end that way. Both BMS and QasarLontra were ahead of us at this stage, but by the first checkpoint we came across them. There was a crazy hour or so as all three teams tried to gain the advantage before we lost them again in a navigational decision. We met up with QasarLontra later at the Nicaraguan Border, where they were trying to coax an old bike that they had borrowed from a Tico back to life, when one of their bikes had broken. I love the way the tables can turn so easily in this sport and there are constant curve balls. You really need to just keep racing your race and pushing hard no matter what. Onwards and while searching for the last checkpoint on the leg, we bumped into BMS. What a welcome surprise. They had been searching for the checkpoint for over an hour, with no luck. We found the checkpoint in no time and sneaked out of there trying to attract little attention from the other still-searching team. It was now just a last push to the zip line. A canopy tour and white-water raft was not wholeheartedly appreciated (or even remembered) after we had raced about 178 hours, with just 13 hours sleep. But this was the way to finish the race and we were really looking forward to our beds. And at about 03h00 on Tuesday, 9 December we crossed the finish line in fifth position. The crowd of four to meet us was irrelevant. The pride and relief of the four of us, Merrell Adventure Addicts, made up for it. It was so, so good to have completed the race. This race pushed me to mental, physical and emotional limits that I have never in my life experienced. It would be great to sit here and write that I am proud of how I handled it all. But the truth is, I am not entirely. In times of dire exhaustion and frustration, I cried, I blamed others, I was derisive and unhelpful to the team. I cannot wait to go back to those places at the limits of my experience and give myself a chance to do better, behave better, hold it together better. Adventure racing provides a platform for us to strengthen and develop the core of ourselves, those areas that are seldom revealed and when it matters most. Perhaps that is partly the reason why we become addicted to this sport. Our race would not have been possible without the loyal and generous support of our sponsors. Merrell in particular, thank you, thank you, thank you. I trust that the stories and emotion that emanate from our experience captures the spirit of your brand, as we are all about getting out there and living life expansively. Black Diamond, the nights were long in Costa Rica and your headlamps never failed. PVM, in this race I learnt the hard way that (wo)man cannot race on water alone. Thanks for your support.
AND OF COURSE TO THE TEAM: CAPTAIN TWEET THANKS FOR BEING THE PERSISTENT DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THE TEAM, DURING THE RACE AND ALL TIMES BEFORE AND AFTER. SMELLY - I LOVE YOUR JOKES AND THE LIGHT-HEARTED PERSPECTIVE YOU BRING; CRAIG, I ADMIRE YOU AND YOUR STRENGTH; AND DON - I LOOK FORWARD TO THE HONOUR OF RACING WITH YOU SOON IN THE FUTURE. PURA VIDA!
Photo credit: Andreas Strand
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Craig 'Farmer' Carter-Brown Photo credit: Nacho Cembellin
ON TUESDAY MORNING MY PHONE RANG. IT WAS TWEET. “CAN YOU COME TO COSTA RICA IN A WEEK'S TIME?” AFTER HEARING THE NEWS ABOUT DON AND MAKING ENDLESS PHONE CALLS AND SOME ON THE SPOT MANAGEMENT DECISIONS, IT SEEMED LIKE THE ANSWER COULD BE YES. 12 • DO IT NOW Magazine | #33
Having missed out on a race in Spain before due to visa complications, I realised that these opportunities do not present themselves that often and to miss out a second time was not an option. The organisation of gear and travel was relatively simple and before I knew it I was on the plane to Johannesburg. After meeting up with Hanno and Tweet, we made the long flight to Sao Paulo, then to Panama City and our final destination, San José. We collected our gear and headed to the hotel. My first impression of this country was the mountainous nature of the terrain and thick jungle vegetation. This was going to be tough to race. (I didn’t know about the mud.)
It was good to arrive at the race hotel two days early as we had time to check our gear and buy what seemed like too much trail food (the trail food we found in the shops was as good as anything one would get in SA). Susan arrived from North America and as far as race preparation was concerned, we were rather organised.
The bike push up to the zip line was brutal, as the elevation from sea level went up to 800 m in approximately 10 km. The zip line was crazy and got us all awake, however the drop meant we had dropped 300 m and this had to be ascended again.
The World Champs for me was like coming out of the Currie Cup and entering the Super 15. All the teams looked professional and my initial expectations were not that high (looks can be deceiving). Race briefing included an hour lecture by a snake doctor, with live specimens on display. Apparently there are lots of snakes in Costa Rica! The race route looked epic. Lots of kayak and long legs. Having received our boxes and race instructions, we made the final preparations and it was go time.
Back on the bike progress was slow, so we found a 'good' spot for a nap. Two-hours later, we set off once more, reaching transition in the late afternoon. Here we had a compulsory 4 hours stop and some much-needed rest. At this point the racing was still very close.
Feeling fat and lazy (how one should feel prior to a 800 km race), we made the bus trip down to the Panama Border and where the race would start. Bang, 280 athletes sprinted down the road to bike boxes that were 1 km away. We soon settled into a fast but comfortable pace somewhere near the front of the field. Early on we made a route choice to stay close to the border road, but the road was not as good as we expected and the border road (tar) was off limits! As we came to the third CP, we were back in the field and travelling against the flow of other teams making their way down a single-track mud path in the jungle, where passing was difficult. After hours of hike-a-bike up steep, inclined mud paths, where our speed was limited by the team in front, we finally made it onto open roads. We had lots of work to do as we were now mid pack in the field. We cycled strongly to the first transition on some good roads through the palm olive plantations. Leaving the transition (after being bitten by fire ants whilst pumping up our kayaks), we heard that we were in twenty-second position. It is always good to race from behind as you constantly have a target of the team in front, and as you pass the team the confidence builds. After a very scenic coastal paddle we found ourselves back in the business end of the field in ninth place. Hanno had been excited about the next section of the race ever since we had arrived in Costa Rica. It was the leg where we had to transport our kayaking gear 27 km across the peninsula to the next transition and then a further 10 km with the boats to the next paddle. Our dolly (trolley for transporting boats designed and made by Hanno) was by far superior to any of the other teams due to its large wheels and light frame. Hence with limited effort we managed to pull up into the top five through this stage. However, this euphoria was short lived, as the next paddle would prove to be one of the most difficult legs of the race. A mangrove swamp appears very beautiful from the outside, but once inside it is a living hell. Hot humid conditions, tidal currents, disappearing channels, hot and salty water, and a constant smell of sewage (I think you get the picture). The tidal changes meant certain CPs were only accessible through some channels at high tide. Our kayaks were slow at the best of times, but were even slower paddling into the receding tide. After about 30 hours, we exited the swamps feeling rather beat up. We had now been racing for just over two days and had minimal sleep on the boats. Taking my mud-covered bike out at transition, I realised this is where the racing starts proper. After some transition chow, we all sleepily headed of to the superman zip line, hoping that the adrenaline rush would wake us up.
The next hike lived up to all our expectations and proved to be the match-maker or breaker for teams. It was 90 km of hiking up 3,800 m of mountain passes and then trudging mud trails down through the endless jungle. It was tough, so we decided to get some sleep at the cycle transition (good call). The rafting was awesome, with some grade 4 rapids down a mountain river lined with tropical jungle as far as the eye could see. We will all remember the last long paddle for the constant attacks by the dreaded sleep monster. However, due to some tactical switching, we managed to maintain a steady speed to the Caribbean coast and transition. Another muddy trek and onto the final long cycle. At this stage we were in seventh position, with two teams within 30 minutes behind us and two teams two-hours ahead. The racing was still close and nobody wanted to lie down. It would be a fight to the end (sleep was not an option despite seven gruelling days of racing). Every time I race, I am amazed at what the human body is capable of because if the brain is willing, the body will follow! So we all dug deep, upped the tempo (a good way to fight off the sleep monsters) and powered our way into fifth place. The technical section to the finish line was sheer hell, as my feet were now starting to feel the effects of jungle rot! Finally, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, we crossed the line. Somehow, it did not feel right to stop after racing for seven-and-a-half days! But once asleep in a hotel bed, nothing really mattered any more. Racing with Sue was great! She can really dig deep and seems to perform best when faced with adversity. Being her older brother does not mean that she always listens to me though! For her to keep up the racing intensity for such a long race was an awesome achievement Hanno and Tweet are both top international racers and it is always a privilege to race with them and gain from their many years of experience. From this race I learnt that Team Merrell has what it takes to mix it with the top teams in the world, and I believe World Champs could be a title they can achieve.
AS ALWAYS THANKS TO MERRELL FOR THE SUPPORT, WHICH A CRAZY SPORT LIKE AR REQUIRES IN ABUNDANCE. THANKS TO MY FAMILY FOR LOOKING AFTER THE FARM WHILE I WAS AWAY. NOW IT'S TIME FOR FOOD AND SLEEP. â€˘ www.doitnow.co.za â€˘ 13
14 â€˘ DO IT NOW Magazine | #33