‘Godzone Pure is the ultimate expedition adventure racing experience, with unsupported teams travelling approximately 530km across New Zealand’s wilderness for up to 7 days. GZ Pure represents the most technically challenging adventure race in the world and teams should prepare accordingly. All teams should consider carefully whether they have the requisite skills, physical and mental strength to complete the GZ Pure event given the technical difficulty and course length'.
Since doing a few local adventure races I’d been wondering if I could get into a Godzone team for 2019, so after Redbull Defiance I was keeping up my fitness in the hope I would get a call up, and that I did. Highland Events were in need of a female at the last minute and took a huge punt on me being the novice adventure racer. I can imagine their worries and concerns having a rookie to drag round the course, but the pressure I felt to not let the team down was more fuel to the fire, and a chance to prove myself.
A week before the start of the race the stages are announced, allowing for competitors to sort their kit and food out, meticulously weighing things, calculating calories, making sure you have enough warm, dry clothes, all the necessary kit, gurney goo, anti-chafe and whatever else you may need for a week in the wilderness.
The stages were announced and on paper, didn’t look ‘that bad’- well this was my first slightly obscured thought along with the other one about pacing. In my mind it wasn’t possible to race at such a high intensity for a week, surely we couldn’t sustain that intensity for the duration, but yet I was to find myself pushing and pushing just to keep up with the team from the off. OK, yes it is possible to race at that intensity but it’s going to hurt more than I had ever imagined.
Getting to the start line without an injury is a task in itself but there we all were, fit and injury free, my new teammates whom I'd only met 24 hours before stood by my side and the quiet apprehension amongst us could have been cut with a knife.
Stage one was somewhat different to the other GZ races, in that we knew we would have enough time for a sleep after finishing the stage and before being driven out to the middle of nowhere restarting again for the remainder of the race.
Stage one started in Akaroa with a coasteering section from town to Takamatua, then it was on to the bikes and a steep climb up towards Mt Sinclair and across the skyline of the Banks Peninsula. A short paddle from Diamond Harbour to Governors Bay followed, before a final trail run section to
. Our race strategy here was to go out and show that we wanted to be competitive, and that we did. It was a great opportunity to work on those transitions and get to know one another’s roles in the team.
At the Adventure Park, I played the ‘female card’ and got myself fed, cleaned and rested whilst Eryn and Brandon the two main navigators got to work on planning the routes for the final stages.
1.40am and we're all on the bus heading out of town to Mount White Bridge for Stage two: Packraft/trek, 73km, estimated time 15-20hours. After the whistle went we're all running in the dark, our bags heavily loaded with our packraft gear making the pace somewhat arduous. Soon enough a few teams started to take different routes but we would eventually converge again in thick bush looking for the first check point (CP). This was the only real bush bashing of the whole race, and I was thankful for that, especially after coming across a few wasps nests which was one way to quicken the pace, jeez, they sting! It wasn’t the most fun way to start the race that was for sure.
After locating the CP we were up there with the lead teams Tiki Tour and Perpetual Guardian, all in line climbing up and over the Binser Saddle towards the Poulter River. On reaching the river I had to compose myself and not show my nerves with it being only my second time in a packraft (the first being on Saturday when my teammate Patrick gave me an introduction to them). How hard can it be?! The packraft section was pretty epic, with some good, and not so good flowing rapids, where at times we pushed the packraft over the shallows but at others thrashed through the white water with verocity. We all got down uneventfully, but for me the cold had kicked in and I was freezing. Me and the cold don’t go and the transition from the water to the trek was somewhat sluggish as I tried to shake off the shivers. At this point Eryn and Brandon had a navigation decision to make: do we climb up a steep cliff to reach a well formed 4wd track which is likely to be quicker under foot, or do we follow the river bed upstream? Such a decision was harder to make after seeing the two leading teams both take different options. We opted for the climb, which in hindsight was the slower option as Tiki Tour managed to put in some good time on us here. It would be prudent to point out that when I say ‘climb’, I don’t mean a steep well formed path, think more ‘no one can climb up that, surely? Not without any climbing gear?!' and then add on a load of tussock and matagouri bush and you’re about there.
The last part of the trek involved multiple traverses across the riverbed upstream before arriving at the caves, which we were to navigate our way through for the final CP of the stage. This stage took us 13hours to complete and soon enough we found ourselves in transition getting ready for Stage three: 160km MTB, 1950m ascent, estimated time 12-18 hours.
Before the race started we’d spoken about having two jetboils for cooking up a hot meal and I’d planned accordingly, but once in transition the last thing we wanted to do was faff around with the heater and the best way to keep the momentum was to just do all the necessary body checks, clean, change clothes and footwear, refuel quickly and get out of there… ‘transition, transition, transition’ as Patrick would say.
The MTB stage set off at a demon pace and already I was struggling to hold the last wheel. This disheartened me a lot and more doubts were kicking in about my fitness and even more of the pressure was weighing me down. At this point I had to admit my struggles and ask for the tow rope, which the lads were more than happy to help with and what a life saver it was. Not only does it keep you all together, it makes you work harder and more consistent whilst also getting a helping hand in the right direction. Fair play to Eryn who was a machine on this stage and towed me most of the way round. The MTB started off pretty non-descript on gravel and sealed roads, until we hit the 4wd track and started climbing up towards Cookies Hut. This climb went on and on before a single track descent to the river bed. We tried to ride where possible, which for me was not always easy going. I took a couple of good falls, which increased the frustration and adrenaline levels. Both of these falls took the wind out of me, but out there in the middle of the night, in the middle of no where, it’s not the time or the place to feel sorry for yourself, so as my mum would rightly say ‘take two paracetamol and get on with it’.
Soon enough the riverbed would end and we were surrounded by hills leading down to the valley floor. From here there was only one way out and that was up, with our bikes on our backs. Again… think steep tussock, unstable ground and you’re just about there. At this point I was really wanting to play the ‘female card’ again and ask for help, but me and my stubborn ways, I cracked on and tried my best before the help from my teammates came…a well needed helping hand hauling my bike up for me in the final phase. The route from here was very undulating and the descents in the dark were somewhat dangerous, Brandon taking a pretty hard fall only to dust it off in a flash and crack back on. The climbs seemed relentless but sure enough they ended and we reached the sealed roads again.
We must have been going for over 24hours non stop since the restart, and this was telling, the pace had dropped off a little and we were in need of that second tow rope. I was transfixed on the rear wheel of Eryn’s bike but this was at times far too rhythmical that it increased my fatigue and falling asleep on the bike had never seemed so close. A quick caffeine gel and I was back on board- yes, correct, that was a caffeine gel around 4am Tuesday morning, needs must.
We had made the decision to push on to transition and get the first couple of CP’s on the trek before taking any rest or sleep. A decision we were all happy with and made around the known ‘darkzones’ on the water stages, plus, the sun had come up and we had all made it through that early morning lull. Here is where the first hindsight was, with the slowing of pace on the bikes we maybe should have made the decision to sleep and rest for an hour, recharging our batteries in order to maintain the intensity- a learning for later, perhaps.
The sun was now well and truly up and we’re changing our clothes and sorting our kit out for the 83km trek (Stage four) ahead. On paper, 3800m ascent and descent over 83km doesn’t seem that unrealistic but given what we’ve already done and have yet to do, I was an idiot for thinking that. We started in the heat of the day and were keen to set a good pace out of transition, the race strategy was always to try and make ground where we could. Unfortunately the first CP involved some tricky navigation with limited features to work off. Brandon and Eryn did a great job of locating the CP which may have cost us a couple of hours, but the way they handled the circumstances and the way the team came together was something to be praised. After locating the CP, we pushed on for another few hours, taking water on board at every given opportunity. The trek mainly consisted of big climbs and descents of the valleys and ranges. Scree slopes, tusscosks, river beds, trails, it had everything you could imagine. We must have pushed on for around 36hours from the restart before reaching the 2nd CP on the trek stage and taking an hour nap at the hut. I’m not one to nap during the day normally as I usually feel a whole lot worse after them, and that didn’t change. Jeez, I had to dig deep to get going again. Soon enough we're back climbing, the lads now carrying the contents of my pack amongst them in the hope of me keeping up.
The technical terrain is something of a work on for me, and being like a baby elephant I struggled to keep up at times, but I kept my head in the game and pushed on. For once I was that person at the back, who would reach the group waiting for me 10seconds after they’d already left. It was super frustrating to be slow and to feel that indirect pressure from the team, but even more so frustrating at myself. This was a point in the race where after falling for the umpteenth time, I had to take a sit down, have a word with myself, shed a tear in frustration and pull myself together. Sure enough, it worked and although the climbs kept coming so too did my strengths begin to show as I managed to maintain momentum with them.
Once out of the valleys we had roughly 20kms of good flat terrain of which we would run to make up some time before reaching the third CP for a well deserved sleep. This would be around another 20hours or so on the go (I think). I’d like to say our running speed was up there, at the time it felt like it was but on talking to a few people back home tracking us, they may disagree. We didn’t quite get to the third CP on the trek before we were all shot to pieces and the long tussocks on the path looked way too inviting. Sleeping bags out, alarm set for 1hour and I’m out like a light. Second lowest point, was waking up from this sleep, cold, tired, hungry and knowing there’s a lot more climbing to do. But it’s amazing what your body can do when you tell it it needs to. That first 20minutes or so were horrible, but once you’re back in the swing you forget all the discomfort and focus on the task in hand. The remainder of the trek is difficult to justify in words just how gruelling it was. The terrain and mountain range were incredible, but that beauty is soon lost when you realise there is a weather front coming and and you still have a number of valleys pass through.
Looking back at the terrain we crossed I honestly thought it would have been impossible to do so, yet we did it. It took us a lot longer than anticipated and we were rationing food from half way in. The trek took its toll on our feet and eventually slowed the pace with every step being painful, but we had accepted at this point that we would be darkzoned before the packraft stage, which would be a good opportunity to refuel and rest up.
To be darkzoned means that between 8pm and 7.15am you were not allowed on the water, so if arriving at these stages or being in these stages in dark, meant you had to get off the water and pitch up for the night.
Our darkzone fell after the trek, which meant we were in transition with fresh clothes and a warm meal. We took some time as a team to talk over what our race strategy was to be. We knew that both the packraft and kayak stage were anticipated to take 6-8hours each, and that wasn’t including the transition time between the two. Our biggest worry was being darkzoned twice, of which we were not wanting to take the risk, plus the dark zone meant that the teams behind would make ground on us, and potentially put us all at the same point in the race. So, decision made, we would take 3hours sleep and walk the beginning of the packraft stage following the river bed. We left transition around 1.40am Thursday morning, after arriving in there around 9.30pm Wednesday evening. We must have covered a good 17km walking with all our kit before getting the packrafts ready. At 7.15am we jumped on the water and headed down the Upper Rakaia, a pretty fast flowing river but nothing too technical. This section only took around 3 hours before we were at the transition for the kayak stage. Our initial worries of being double dark zoned now seemed far fetched and doubts of whether we would have been best off taking more sleep and not burying the legs with a 17km trek had to be pushed to the back of the mind, as we could feel the teams behind racing towards us and making up time.
After the packraft came the kayak stage down through the Rakaia Gorge for 77km to the shoreline. This section of river was a little technical with some early rapids, but the main challenge was picking the right river braid to go down and stay together as a team. This section of the race seemed to go on for a while longer than it should, and sure enough the fatigue and sleep deprivation were kicking in. Sleep deprivation is a crazy thing, the strength it requires to not fall asleep whilst exercising, alongside hallucinations is something I was not prepared for and something I thought was not possible; to fall asleep whilst exercising.
Out of the kayaks and we’re all cold, wet and very much fatigued. It’s a welcomed sight to see some Highland Events supporters in the transition, but that’s short lived when another team rock up only a few minutes behind us…game on.
We were in and out of transition as quickly as we could for the last mountain bike leg of 43km. It must have been around 5pm Thursday night before we left transition with Torpedo7 on our tails. It didn’t take long for them to catch us, which made for an interesting few hours of riding with the team putting in huge efforts to try to drop us, but we wouldn’t let them go. A quick chat with the team and we were keen to keep up the race intensity and try to stick with them. It was all well and good at the time, flying along on the flats at an increased speed, but with the hill fast approaching, sure enough we had burnt one too many matches. The tow rope was out to help the team, but the fatigue and cold had kicked in which meant it was a battle. This is where the strengths turned for the team and required some good team work to keep up the motivation and forward movement towards the finish line. The finish line that seemed so close, but yet so far.
The climb continued for an eternity and we were all welcome of the fast descent to transition, well it would have been fast if we could have stayed awake. The fatigue really had kicked in by then, and it was a case of getting to transition awake and in one piece, not how quickly we could get there.
The final transition to the packraft was a slog and by this time we were loosing heart having seen the other teams catch us.
All we needed to do now was that final paddle to Akaroa, the only thing that would get me there was caffeine gels and sweets. This was probably my lowest, lowest point in the race, I couldn’t stay awake for love nor money. Sat at the front of the packraft warm and dry in my fresh clothes only meant one thing… I was far too cosy to stay awake, much to the frustration of Patrick paddling behind me.
I was trying with all my might to stay away and keep focused, but paddling across a harbour in the pitch black, with my depth perception blurred and the glowing phytoplankton stirring with every paddle stroke was enough to make me stir crazy and keep nodding off. At one point, I thought we were paddling backwards and that we were following Brandon and Eryn paddling on a unicorn. You cant script these things, but as I said before, sleep deprivation plays a lot of tricks on your mind. We struggled to find a couple of the CPs in the dark, but Eryn and Brandon did a fantastic job of the navigation not only on this stage, but throughout the whole race. The physical and mental strength they both exerted was above and beyond that of what I did just following their lead. And to Patrick, I mean he has the patience of a saint not to get annoyed at me falling asleep and asking the same questions over and over, and the work he did up front on a lot of these stages was a massive help for the whole team.
Once the finish line was insight, around 4am Friday morning, my emotions were all over the place. I was relieved that’s for sure, but equally lost and overwhelmed that at last we could now stop, we could take our foot off the gas and switch off. It was amazing to see some familiar faces at the finish, especially Anna, Bobby and the Sneaky Weasels who we’d fought alongside all week.
Would I do it again? Ahh man, I’m not sure. Ask me in a week. It was hands down the toughest race I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. The indirect pressure I felt to perform at times got the better of me, and the self doubts kicked in. But this wasn’t direct pressure from my teammates, it was the pressure i'd put on myself to prove i was strong enough.
After the race my body was swollen and achy, and my emotions were all over the place. This for me is something new and something which shows the toll and stress it had put on my body. I’m yet to feel that sense of elation for crossing the finish line, I really don’t think it’s sunk in yet.
Godzone as a race has an indescribable toughness with a sadistic edge from the race organisers. But if it wasn’t for the brutality of the race it wouldn’t be Godzone. It was an adventure, one of the best ways to discover the beauty of New Zealand and it was one of the best ways to prove to yourself how strong you can be.
So here’s to Godzone 2020, well it is in Rotorua, on our doorstep….it would be rude not too, wouldn’t it?!
Time taken: 4 days 20 hours 15 minutes
Of the 47 teams that started GodZone Pure, 25 completed the full course, 4 were short coursed, 18 were unranked/did not complete the race.
Highs: The terrain on the trek. Crossing the finish line.
Lows: Waking up from an hours sleep. Being that person at the back
Sleep had: 5 hours (2 x 1hour naps, 3hours in the darkzone)
Food eaten over the days: Ems power cookie bars, OSM, Raw balls, museli oat combos, sweets, back country rehydrated meals, absolute wilderness rehydrated meals.
Best hallucination: Thinking the lads were paddling on a unicorn
Worst hallucination: Thinking we were paddling backwards
What would I have more of next time: snickers bars, chocolate, sweet food. I really struggled to eat the savoury cold, rehydrated meals, but I think this was because I haven’t trained with them before. More caffeine chews or no doze.
Best learning: Just get through those early hours of the morning, and once the sun comes up you will most likely feel recharged. More sleep in the long term, may allow the race pace to have been more consistent and not dropped off at times.