As I lie here having eaten a whole packet of salt and vinegar crisps, a share bag just for me (a race tradition ever since doing my first triathlon), I can feel my muscles seizing up by the second. The night after racing is a funny one. I feel physically and mentally tired, but yet it’s difficult to relax enough to sleep. Too much caffeine probably – and that’s a whole other blog, however, I just wanted to jot down a few notes from the race whilst I can remember them vividly.
Redbull Defiance, what a brutal race, but that’s what we signed up for, and in essence what we were after. How far could we push ourselves, and the ultimate goal for this year: could we beat last year’s time? Well they’d shortened the course by 2k in the final run and changed some of the kayak ever so slightly, so I was hopeful!
Being a ‘Redbull’ branded race brings with it some of the general hype of a ‘big’ race, kind of like ‘Ironman’, cue videos of people pushing bikes up hills and gritting their teeth striding forth across the skyline traverse to Roy’s Peak with some emotive music in the background. But as races and hype go, it’ll get you up there and brings out the nerves in even the best of us. Registration day came, bags collected, bikes racked, and a pre-race photo taken in your race shirt…a memory to look back on and show our enthusiasm when we think back on the race.
I was nervous, and more so than last year. In previous years there were 2 categories: Elite and Sport, the sport was for those people generally wanting to complete the race, and Elite, for those people competing for prize money. I could hide behind the Sport category heading last year, and not have to think about fast elite people, but this time it was different. One category, all in together. The fact is, there was no more added pressure than the year before, I just created it for myself by wanting to do well and compete against the top level athletes. Racing’s just for fun though right?
For this race you have to pre-pack your transition bags and leave them the night before along with racking your bike, so there’s an element of needing to be organised, which takes a little bit of time. Once that was completed we could go home, eat and try to sleep. Usual meal of chicken and sweet potato consumed, final preps (panicking) completed and I was in bed for 8pm. Alarm set for 4.20am. Sleep was average, but it’s never going to be amazing when you’re stomach is doing tumbleturns all night and your mind is on overdrive.
Ever since I was young and getting ready for my swimming races, whether it was a club championship, or Nationals, I always got terribly nervous, and my age has not affected that one iota. Nerves are always there, and with that comes even more quietness from me. I think Ali has nerves of steel or is just able to hide it better. But my silence and multiple trips to the toilet most likely gave me away.
The alarm breaks my slumber and I’m up and ready, thinking ‘what have I signed up to do this race for – and not just 1 day of racing, I’ll have to go through all this again tomorrow!’ Tea drunk, porridge forced down and we’re in the car, driving down to the coach pick up. We manage to secure the front seats on the bus – another tradition – and we sit back for the 45min drive to the barge location on the North East of Lake Wanaka. The bus is relatively noisy and people are bustling with excited chitchat. I sat there in silence and ate my banana, and Ali was looking out the window making some small talk about the weather, a concern for the kayak leg perhaps due to the wind, but we’ll find that out when we get to transitions 1 and 2.
As we arrive at the barge the weather is windy, and the lake is showing us some white tops to the waves. I wonder if my usual sea-sickness is going to rear its head, but as we get on board and cower together the fresh air and alternating wind and spray from the lake keeps all that at bay. Excitement builds as we reach the Minaret Station on the east side of the lake, and start the last pre-race rituals and run-throughs.
84 teams of 2 line up in front of the blue Redbull arch at 8.30am and when the gun goes off you’d have thought we were all in a 1k sprint race as teams jostle for position in the first 200metre straight and into the 90degree left turn and up a short sharp hill. The pace doesn’t let up easily and only as groups begin to merge am I able to grab a few breaths and check that I’m still sitting behind Ali. We keep pushing the pace, knowing that the people in the group we’re in aren’t going to let up easily – they were 2 of our friends and some of the other female teams. I knew from this moment on that we would have to push hard for 2 days, and I was ready for it.
4 short sharp hills and a couple of really steep longer ones, river crossings – not to bra deep this time - pushing my bike up hill through trails, holding on tight as my back wheel bounced from left to right on the downs and through the switchbacks, and smashing the legs to within their limits on the 4WD tracks – looking up every now and then to check it was Ali’s back wheel still in front of me. We rode as much as we could, which was significantly more than last year, and we went full force on the down hills. The towrope got used a few times on the flatter sections, and as we crossed the bridge into transition I knew that I’d pushed myself beyond that of the previous year. In the back of my mind I was wondering whether my run legs would be there, but I was in it now, so I’d have to just see what happened.
The start of the run takes you along a flatter trail section and then heads straight up traversing back and forth and then directly up for approximately 4k in distance and 500m vertical. My legs were there, I could feel the strength in them and I wanted to keep pushing, we needed to try and catch the team in front if we could, and not get caught from those close behind. Ali gave me an occasional push on the back to keep me in step and where possible we’d remind the legs how to run and quicken the pace. A timeout section occurs at the top of the abseil as teams line up ready for the 60m drop. We stopped for around 5minutes this year, enough time to get in some food and water and compose yourself. Walking backwards off a cliff isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence, but in essence an abseil is just that, and is similar to the feeling I get when climbing, something I love to do, so I had a great time. You reached the bottom fast and then it’s a quick few kilometres running back to transition to pick up the kayak gear and run for 3k to the kayak.
There is an element of hilarity as you run/limp through the sand from transition with lifejacket on one arm, compulsory bag swinging off the other, and helmet half cocked on your head. Ali seems to be able to run at the same speed continuously, no matter the surface, floating over the sand, but with every step I felt like the weight from my kit pushed me further down, and at any moment I would be enveloped in a sea of grey shingle. Miraculously we make it to the kayak. I stuff out compulsory kit into the dry bag, sparyskirt is on and we lift the kayak over the small fence and run with it 100m to the lake. A short element of faffing ensues as the sprayskirt is fumbled into position and off we go into the calmest lake I’ve ever seen, for the first 5k or so anyway. What were we worrying about with the wind?...
The skill and technique of kayaking is something of a work in progress, and within 30minutes my shoulders are aching from my attempt at muscling the water out of the way – a technique that seems to work well for Ali with her big muscles, but less so for myself with my slightly smaller ones. As we begin the easterly curve of Glendhu Bay so too starts the chop and wind we were hoping to avoid this year. Up, down, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, paddle, paddle in time. Enthusiasm levels went up and down with the waves, but a well-positioned drink with some caffeine in it meant that our sense of humour endured. We began to gain on a team that had zoomed past us at the start of the paddle and our competitiveness kicked in, pulling, pushing, shouting, singing, anything to catch them. We saw the Redbull wooden placard on the beach and a short, sharp turn to the west and we were on dry land. Kit pulled out of the kayak and legs didn’t work at all, but we hobbled up the thankfully short hill and across the finish line. I think you’re 3rdfemale team someone said… we’re what!? I thought. Results suggested we were in the top 5, but weren’t very clear. I put it to the back of my mind, and thought about drinking some milk and eating dinner. Finished for the day, but already thinking about what we had in store for tomorrow. Had we gone too hard?... Tomorrow was another day.
As is the race format for Defiance, we packed our Day Two bags at the end of Day One, and left them to be transported to the relevant transition areas for the next day. This year we couldn’t access our bikes again so here was hoping that they were mechanically sound after the ride that day and race ready for tomorrow.
We headed back to the house and proceeded to do exactly what we had the previous night. Chicken and sweet potato for dinner – why change the habit of a lifetime – and then bed. Alarm was set for similar and we were up and about before I’d even realised my head had hit the pillow. My legs felt a bit tired, and my head was pounding as I woke, but I set to the routine and got ready for the day. Several toilet trips later, we were at the start of the kayak and thankfully it was an ‘in water start’, so there wouldn’t have to be any panicking about getting the sprayskirt on super fast – like last year’s fiasco that left us the last to leave the beach. Kayak drained, kit in/on and final banana eaten. We were ready.
We pushed the kayak into the water on the westerly bank of Lake Wanaka, and hopped in. A nice man from another team helped me to fix my sprayskirt and all 84 teams were bouncing around in the waves knocking into one another ready for the start. Off we went at 6.30am thrashing through the water, pull, push, pull, push, rotate, use your legs and body not just your arms I was thinking. We managed a good start this year and got into a rhythm quickly, but the waves and chop didn’t let up until we’d turned easterly down the Clutha river, and it couldn’t have come sooner. The river is fast flowing and Ali steered us well through some quicker rapids. We maintained our place in the chain of kayaks and I could feel the determination of the female team tucked in just behind us, and we kept pushing. Finally the beach was there and out of the water we got running the 2km through some fields and up some short, sharp hills to test the legs again. They were there, and I was ready for it.
This year they’d swopped the clay pigeon shoot for a knife throw, and my usual beginners luck failed me as I essentially threw it at the floor. Ali had better luck as she landed it an inch off the floor into the hay bale meaning we could move straight through to our bikes. We had a camera beaming into our faces – you’re one of the lead female groups someone said as we attempted a quick transition into bike shoes and helmet. ‘We’re one of the what groups!’ I was thinking. There was no time to panic or for any nerves. I wanted to start the bike and I wanted to ride all the big hills this year, there was work to be done.
This bike ride is one of the most relentless I’ve ever completed. Starting on some nice flowing farm tracks leading you into a false sense of security you gradually begin the incline and then some short pinches remind you what is coming. Up you go and keep going, over 1000m of elevation, rocky, steep sections crossed with 4WD tracks and then into tussocks and narrow grassed sections. We worked well as a team, some tow rope where needed, but mostly just some words of encouragement as we stayed consistent with pace. Our friends (another female team) caught us and this provided some further much needed motivation to keep the pace up, and we managed to stay with them as we reached the top.
Then comes the fun part, the descent; fast flowing, switchbacks through rocky tracks, with some gates to navigate and styles to heave your bike over mixing up the riding. Holding on for dear life on my hardtail I felt like I was about to bounce over the edge at some points, it was great fun. Before I knew it we were crossing the river at the bottom with bikes overhead and cycling into transition. In this last section I was starting to think about the run and I was worried because my run training had been less than ideal, having been injured for most of the build up. But I knew that I had more strength than last year due to cross training, so it would be a good test for that and my mental strength to keep going.
Transition was not succinct due to having to change over water bottles and re-pack the race pack with food, but we eventually got out and started running. Under the culvert and over the ladder and we were off, a slight detour and double back meant we lost a little bit of time, and that didn’t go down well for morale, but we were in a rhythm before we knew it, and then came the hill. You start with a flatter section running through farm and then you’re on the 4WD track with some short pinches up and down. We ran the downs to remind our legs what to do, and walked with purpose on the ups using the tow rope, which this year we made way too short and became a slight pain as I kept standing on Ali’s shoes and pulling them off, which also didn’t go down too well. We maintained a good pace though, and could see our friends just ahead, keeping them in sight throughout and hoping that they might start to slow…they didn’t…the race was on.
At this point we knew that there were potentially 2 female teams in front of us, and 1 behind. We were sat in 3rdfrom day one and knew we needed to finish high up to maintain that on day two. This was a little bit of extra pressure, but during a race I seem to be able to cope with that a little better, and we got our heads down and kept pushing.
There our a few false tops to Roy’s Peak and it turns into some steep descents and narrower tracks. This tested my legs and although they felt tired it was nice to have some down to ease out of the relentless ups of the 1500m. The wind at the top was gusting and strong, and I pulled my hat down further so it didn’t blow off the top of my head. I knew what was coming next and a supporter at the top acknowledged this with a ‘here comes the fun bit’. We started the first switchbacks and passed some tourists as we went, and I felt my legs were there so I pushed on, attempting to glide down the hill with a smooth flowing leg turner. (In reality I think I was breathing heavily and thumping down one foot after the other with people turning around to look at me before I’d even got anywhere near them..!) We could no longer see any other teams and it was at this point I realised we had to push as hard as possible to maintain our overall position.
It’s hard not to stop and take in the view in this section, but I knew that if I dropped the pace I wouldn’t want to increase it again, so I kept pushing on. Sightseeing would have to wait. Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill and 6km was all that was left. I pushed hard, trying to keep up with Ali who was in her own will of determination setting a fast pace and who every so often she looked back at me – which made me dig in that little bit more – come on Liz I thought. Around the lake side track we went, some short ups and downs and one foot in front of the other I could only think about the finish line now, my body was aching, my quads were shot, but I just kept focused on the finish. Finally it was there and we ran together under the blue Redbull arch. I wanted to lie down, but the other female teams were there and we congratulated one another wondering where we had all finished, and knowing that it was going to be close.
It was closer than I’d realised at the end, but we managed a 2nd place, 1minute 35seconds ahead of 3rd (our friends), and 10minutes behind 1st place. I couldn’t have done anymore I thought, I didn’t think I would have been able to maintain that pace over the 2 days, and I was happy with the result (see link for overall results).
I lay on the floor afterwards and thought to myself, thank goodness that’s over, we did it.
Massive congratulations to every competitor at the event. It was a tough battle for the top spots in the female race, but a well deserved win for Kym and Nic.