Adam Hollingworth / Emergency Medicine Registrar / Wellington, New Zealand
The Speight’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship is an annual event held in the South Island of New Zealand. It is the longest and hardest race on the Multisport Circuit. Participants hurl themselves across the island on road bikes, kayaks and tired legs. At stake: a cold can of Speight’s beer and entry into the exclusive club of Coast to Coast finishers.
Only four kilometres to Woodstock. These were the words of a riverside marshal five hours into the longest kayak of my life. Woodstock was the final checkpoint which had to be reached before the cut off time. If I made it I would be home free, if I didn’t it would all have been for nothing. The Coast to Coast is the pinnacle of the World Multisport Circuit and World Famous In New Zealand. It covers 243 kilometres from the West Coast, winding through the Southern Alps, before crossing the Canterbury Plains and finishing in Earthquake-ravaged Christchurch. The rules have remained largely unchanged for the last thirty years.
Twelve months of studying had left me psychologically scarred, severely myopic, exercise deprived and 15kg overweight. This sounded like the perfect antidote. The Coast to Coast can be run as a team over two days or as a one-day race. I was only going to do this once. Why prolong the agony over two days? For me, the choice was simple. I figured about six months of training would be adequate. I’d never road biked, kayaked white water or, for that matter, run a near-marathon up a river bed and over a mountain.
It seemed there was a lot to do. I needed a plan. My training scheme: exercise as much as possible. My winning diet: buy every nut bar available and eat constantly. Equipment: write a blank cheque and keep on spending.
One week before the race and I was pretty happy with how things had gone. I’d completed a couple of eight-hour training sessions and, surprisingly, they hadn’t felt as bad as a day on-call. My support crew were on-board with three pages of instructions. It was on.
6am, dark, waves crashing, sand mingling underneath our running shoes. We kicked off with a 3km sprint. It seemed odd sprinting the first leg of an endurance race, but it was vital to reach the first cycle stage quickly.
Cycling shoes on and lights flashing, I jostled for position into a bunch of riders. It felt good to be moving fast on the bike. I hadn’t really practised bunch riding and was forced to learn fast. The lead is rotated, taking it in turns to push the pace forwards on your turn. It worked well, some time to eat and drink when tucked in behind. Things were looking good.
Two hours later it was time to start running. This was the make-or-break leg and I was excited to get going. The run had to go well, in order to get on the river in time to make the cut off and not get pulled from the race. Sub-five hours was my target. My confidence was high, having done a practice run of the route a month before.
It was a running route like no other. The course followed the Deception River up to Goat Pass a climb of approximately 800m. It wasn’t a marked trail, just a steep walled valley of winding barely marked routes. I had spent the preceding week learning flashcards of key points along the route. Cut left after the big rock, cross the river after the fallen tree and so on. There were 20 or so river crossings and the terrain was mostly rocks or large pebbles. The elite guys floated over the rocks like magic. For me, it was head down and careful footsteps.
4.45 hours later the run was done and I was pretty happy. I’d earned myself a good buffer of time for the river but I’d used a lot of energy. A quick blast on the road bike again for 15kms with some severe legs cramps thrown in and I was ready to start paddling. The paddle was going to be horrible. I had decided to use a sea kayak for extra stability but it was seriously slow. The river was very low and over the next seven hours a wicked galeforce headwind was to force me to the edge.
My girlfriend asked me before the race what I was going to think about all day and now that question came to haunt me. During the cycle and run there was a lot to focus on but on the river there were vast stretches of nothing but flatwater paddling. The rapids brought welcome relief.
And then came Woodstock. When I heard the distance to the check point I panicked. The figure dragged me back from my mind meld to reality. There was only 45 minutes to the cut off. They say sleep deprivation effects performance but I can now argue that physical exhaustion is worse. No matter how many times I tried I couldn’t do the maths required to work out how long it would take me to paddle 4km. This meant I had to step up a gear and give it all I had. I made it with 10 minutes to spare and then pushed on into the last hour to the finish.
Next problem – standing up. It took five minutes, and three people to help me. I was cold, tired, nauseous and hungry all at the same time. Worse, I had completely emptied my energy tank on the river, and I wasn’t sure I had anything left to finish. Dusk was setting in but all that stood between me and the finish was a 70km cycle.
I don’t really remember much from that leg apart from that the Canterbury Plains are indeed flat and wide and that a headwind is markedly counter-productive. The city limits were a welcome sight. Because I was near last, most of the people who had lined the streets earlier in the day to cheer people across town were long gone. I navigated through the city praying that I’d get caught in a red light so I could take a break. Dreams of competing had long changed into hallucinations of simply finishing.
My bike bumping over earthquake broken roads, at last I saw it. The Ocean! Another ten minutes of cycling past hillsides propped up by shipping containers and the finish was there. I think there was a cheer, I know there were some photos, and there definitely was the obligatory can of Speight’s Beer. I had done it.
My memory of the finish is hazy but it felt good to not be moving. It felt even better to have someone else prop me up. What a day. Something to always be proud of but never to be repeated. It was very tough, perhaps my hardest challenge to date. But it was an amazing experience. I ran, cycled and kayaked some beautiful routes in training and on race day and it opened me up the idea that anything really is possible. And what did I think about all day? That I love my girlfriend and that nothing is impossible, just a shade of difficult.