The big events of the season have their own specific gravity; time is crushed, exponentially, on itself, until we find ourselves rudely deposited at race registration – bleary eyed, time travellers, not entirely sure where those last weeks of training and preparation went.
2019 is my first Red Bull Defiance. Alex Martin and I are racing as team Barracuda Kayaks. We make a good team, having trained together for a couple of years now – Alex puts up with my exceptional sense of humour, I put up with her ability to access beast-mode until her nose bleeds, we both like peanut butter.
Registration is a whirlwind of gear checks and logistics coordination – bags must be pre-packed, bodies pre-loaded with race fuel, brains switched on to ensure the correct gear will end up at the correct transition. We bustle around before the briefing, bristling with paddles, helmets, mountain bikes and life jackets, always just slightly more equipment than appendages in which to balance it.
The overwhelming take home message from briefing is to not smile or wave at the cameras, Red Bull Defiance has worked hard to achieve an atmosphere of grisly misery, gritty footage of race-embattled survivors, clawing their way to finish line in the depths of despair – sounds like perfect smiling conditions as far as I am concerned. Alex and I practice our “blue steel” faces.
I sprained my back a couple of weeks before race day, and even just a handful of days before the race, I had been unsure if I would be lining up. I have a cocktail of pain killers and anti-inflammatories that I am hoping will keep the old back feeling limber and comfortable enough to compete and complete. I have no idea how the weekend will treat me, or if I will pull up well enough after RBD to hit Coast – the biggest goal for the season. I feel a bit like I am staring into an abyss of the unknown, and the unanswerable – I am a little bit excited.
The barge crossing to the start of the first leg is appropriately moody, great gusts of wind lap across Lake Wanaka, crumpling its surface into a frothing, evil chop. Perfect conditions for a nice downwind paddle. We wonder if we will be allowed to paddle in this. Competitors hunch against the chilling wind, little bundles of colourful, Gore-Tex clad misery. For some reason the deck of the barge is coated in sand. Bare skin is viciously exfoliated. The barge of race-refugees rolls across the lake, expressions are appropriately sombre, I hope the media crews are capturing the sand blasting and the sea sickness. It will make for excellent viewing. Curtains of malevolent rain are drawn backward and forward across the peaks around us.
A desperate lack of port-a loos greet us at the start line. I abandon the queue early, reasoning that making it to the start line on time is preferable to emptying the bladder. The Matagouri is stuffed with competitors in a more desperate situation than I.
The start is furious. We hold ourselves back, easing into the ride. My back feels ok. Alex is not in love with the first 20km. I try singing the Rattlin’ Bog song to jolly her along. Alex is even less in love with Rattlin’ Bog Song. I go quiet. I have emptied my jollying-along arsenal far too soon.
The first half of the ride is fast, a glorious, rolling ride through pastoral land, the strong Nor West urging us faster and faster. Peaks on every side funnel us back towards Wanaka. We are making good time. We whoop and yell as helicopters pass inches from our helmets, crushing the grass flat around us. It’s exhilarating. We forget our “Blue Steel” expressions, and look far too jubilant.
Into the climbing. Its fun to see just how much I can ride. My back gets a little achy as I push it up some of the steeper inclines, but I am pleasantly surprised by how well its holding up. There are not too many places where I have to get off and push. The fords are Alex’s favourite part. I like the climbs. There is a lot of climbing.
Around the half way mark, we reach a long section of uphill bog, impossible to ride. The bog is followed by a really long section of rutted and overgrown track. We struggle upwards, bracken, matagouri and all manner of sharp, clawing plants grab at our bikes. I am still enjoying myself, but Alex is swearing a bit. I don’t think this is her idea of a really fun way to spend a Saturday morning. She is glistening from exertion and her face has transitioned beyond blue steel into something more resembling black iron.
All the pushing starts to aggravate my back, I try to get some Panadol but I fail to find a way to maintain forward progress while negotiating the complicated and close relationship that my race bib has formed with my backpack. Pain killers will have to wait for transition.
A little more climbing then the swooping, shifting, glorious descent. Alex has more testicular fortitude for descending than me, and flies off down the hill, her rear tyre belching great puffs of dust into the air. I follow as fast as I dare, trying a combination of blinking, alternately opening one eye and sort of blowing up onto my face to try and dislodge the grit. None of these methods are magnificently successful. Glasses would have been key here.
We enjoy the final section of lake-side single track, the wind appears to be easing and we bake for a while – sweaty, gritty human –soufflés, feeling pretty excited about getting into a different discipline.
Into the transition, we are hit with a wall of sound, it seems like we have hundreds of supporters willing us on. I make a bee line for the pain killers. Food. Water. Kit change over. I had felt a little dismayed at the number of bikes already in transition, but the yells of our friends, who seem genuinely thrilled at our progress, make me feel like a rock star. We tumble out of transition – via the lolly-snake stand, a blur of friendly, beaming, familiar faces and we are into the run.
It feels good to be doing something different. My back feels hideous for about a quarter of an hour, but then pain killers kick in, and I am streaming back up the hill.
Alex and I experiment with the tow rope, I barely notice Alex on the other end of it, and stride upwards, grateful to be able to offer her any sort of assistance. We trot along the tops, feeling pleased with ourselves. I can just see the corral for the abseil ahead of us, there looks like there are a few people waiting – a good opportunity to take on some more food before smashing out the rest of day 1.
There are quite a few people waiting. Lots in fact. We gobble our extra food. A bit of drizzle is setting in. When did the sun disappear? We know a few other competitors here. It turns out that they have been waiting for quite some time – 45 min or more. Shit. That seems like ages. As the rain increased in intensity, our excitement and energy drains away. We don jackets. Huddle like cowed sheep.
Has the line even moved at all in the last half an hour?
The rain is really setting in now. Cooling bodies condense into goose flesh. A chilling breeze is sucking away the last of our energy. We stand patiently, forlornly, miserable Gore-Tex clad refugees for the second time that day. Eventually someone unfurls a tent fly. Dozens of us huddle together. The warmth and proximity of bodies is comforting and offers a little protection from the elements.
Two by two the teams depart. The number are dwindling, but there are still a fair few of us to go over the edge. Banter about the temperature and the wait time flies back and forth. Some of us try to calculate the odds of making it to the finish before the course closes. We work as a team to harvest water collecting in the fly so we can re-fill our bottles. No one anticipated the extra food or hydration required for a lengthy wait on a cliff edge.
Eventually, its our turn to “jump”. We are hurriedly strapped to the rope, given brief operational instructions, and start to lean back over the edge.
I carefully do not look below me, but have a sense of immense, cavernous space below. I ease the rope through my hands, every fibre of my body tense and vibrating. My mind adopting the weird, resolute calm of the truly terrified. I breathe evenly. One step. Ease the rope. One step. I detachedly wonder what happens if the signals from brain to fingers get jumbled, and I just let go of everything. I will I plunge to the bottom? One step. Ease the rope. One step.
Alex is a little above me to start with, but soon is right next to me. Her breathing sounds rushed, and I realise that she is probably even more scared than me. I hadn’t anticipated the fear. Later we joke that she sounds like she is labour, but at the time, her breathing puts me in mind of that ragged, panicked panting of a wounded, dying animal. “Are you all good Alex?”…. “…yep…pant, pant, pant”.
After descending about 400km, we near the bottom of the cliff. The friendly, jovial voices of the rope-safety people, indicates their obliviousness to the near death experience we have just survived. The cliff runs out. “Is it supposed to that?” “Yes, just lower yourself down”. I slither down the final meters of heavy, wet rope, landing on jelly legs. Vibrating.
We continue to scramble downward for quite some time. I feel electric. But as the steep slippery descent claims a couple of descent falls, the adrenaline ebbs away. I am still cold and achy, and left with the nauseating, empty feeling that always chases an adrenaline rush.
Alex is right back on form, charging away down the track, sure footed and elegant (in a goaty kind of way). She pauses at multiple obstacles to give me a hand down, warning me of potential hazards and helping me look after my poor old back as best as we can. Alex takes good care of me.
Back through transition. We are looking forward to the kayak, we know we can paddle strong, although we still are not sure if we will be allowed to complete the full paddle course. We throw helmets and PDFs over our race packs and trot out along the rocky shore. I feel grim. The rain continues to fall, and the whole world appears to be grey. Grey stones, grey leaves, grey skies, grey water. The grey run is punctuated with bursts of fluorescent pink flagging tape, a bread crumb trail to the start of the paddle.
Quickly into the boats. Its wonderful to see Gordon at the transition. The sunshine yellow of our kayak slices into the lake. I take more drugs and we are off. Alex is an incredible paddler. She is strong, and fast, and has the stamina (and similar determination) of rhino. I sit behind her and match her exemplary cadence.
We shoot off across the bay, trying to pick off the paddlers we can see ahead of us. We are flying along and our spirits are similarly lifted. We make a good team in the boat, and paddling together feels fluid and fast.
The wind has eased considerably, but there is still a fantastic rolling chop coming across the lake. We paddle hard, exploding off the tops of waves, crashing into the troughs.
The AR Duos are wonderfully stable, so we can focus of putting down power. There are moments of weightlessness, suspended animation as we soar between crests. If we push hard enough, we can outwit gravity. We feel exhilarated. The tribulations of the day forgotten. We yahoo and bellow as the water crashes around us. I fancy that we strike fear into the hearts of the teams we are over taking. Around the point the swell is behind us. We experiment with surfing. Catching a few waves, we speed towards home.
At the finish line, our dogged and loyal band of incredible supporters are still waiting for us, and we are surrounded by cheers as we clumsily collect our gear and stumble across the finish line.
Day one is complete. We have nearly no time to prepare ourselves for the second day. The hours spent waiting for the abseil have eaten into valuable rest and recovery time. There is a mad scramble to organise ourselves for the following day of racing. Penny and Batch are superstars and race around for us making sure we have everything we need.
All too soon its late, and only a fistful of hours between our heads hitting the pillow and the obnoxiously early start for Day 2.
_ _ _
I always feel like I need a good pre-race poo under my belt before I start to race. Day 1 had not been kind to me in this regard (lack of facilities, and a binding race-day diet, did nothing to ease matters), and as you might imagine, consequently becomes a reoccurring theme for Day 2 (you have been warned).
Alex is the first to break. We don’t even make it to the start line without a speedy detour to the public conveniences. We hurriedly set up our kayak, perform the YTW’s (warmup) and jostle for our place on the start line amongst all the other teams. We are expecting to have a pretty good paddle. The waves are already building, and the flotilla performs Mexican waves, the boats rising and falling as the swell passes beneath.
Uh oh. Its my turn to feel like I desperately a restroom. Alex helpfully tells me to “re-absorb” it. The starting horn sounds. We are off in a fury of flying blades and churning water. We tune into the rhythm of the waves, surging forward, and trying to hang onto the stern of a boat in front. Furtive glances to either side reveal that we are close to the front, and that there are not too many other women close by.
As we close in on Beacon point, waves are breaking over our bow. We maintain good speed. I can see the rest of the field trailing behind. We power forward. I am nervous about negotiating safe passage through the treacherous seam of rocks strewn out into the bay. It can be hard to spot rocks crouching just below the surface on a calm day, but will be almost impossible in this maelstrom. Alex closely follows the seeming successful progress of the kayak ahead. All seems to be going well until a waves dumps us hard on a rock and the steering is damaged.
Alex is a trooper and manages to control the now wildly veering kayak. We fiddle with the rudder, but cannot seem to fix the issue. Alex resorts to a makeshift steering method using the internal rudder cables, and we power on and on. I am seriously impressed with Alex’s ability to keep the boat under control, if she hadn’t told me she was struggling, I would never have known.
The upside is that my mind has been totally distracted from the conundrum in my lower digestive tract. Even my back feels pretty happy. I am stoked.
We are feeling so good that we throw in some 20:20 efforts (thank you Steve Norton, all those torture fests have paid off), and before we know it, we are being signalled to the bank for transition. Gordon delightedly tells us that we are the first women off the river. We are super proud of ourselves. Job done.
We barrel off across the fields to where our mountain bikes have been stewing in their own filth for the night. The run takes in a perilous stretch of utterly rabbit-warrened ground. My insides remind me every step of the way, that any sort of bathroom experience will be appreciated (no mandatory) in the very imminent future.
The last few meters into transition, all I can fixate on is the glowing beacon of a couple of port a loos. Someone stops me and requests that I throw a knife at a hay bale. I toss the thing in the general indicated direction. I am not sure that I have stopped looking longingly over my shoulder at the toilet. Body is doing the bum-equivalent of crossing-my-legs-to-hold-in-pee. Both of us miss the knife throw target. I begin a knock-kneed amble towards port-a-loo heaven.
It transpires that failing to impale a hay bale means we must undertake a penalty run. A smiling, kind marshal waves us in the direction of the penalty run. My bowels cannot fathom this.
“I CAN’T” I roar in the face of the marshal, jettisoning gear in every direction, trying to access my god-forsaken bib shorts “I NEED A SHIT”.
Lucky I have Alex in my wake, who is able to apologise to the marshal, collect my gear, and meet me after an earth-shattering session of relief, to take our penalty trot.
The sun is shining, the fields are fragrant and verdant, the air is cool and everything is right with the world.
We take our time to clean our bikes up a bit in transition. They are in a hell of a state after the onslaught of the previous day.
Chains gliding seamlessly and noiselessly up and down the cassette, we bowl into the bike leg amongst a symphony of grinding, dirty, bike componentry. We feel smug. We wonder why we didn’t get to shoot.
The Criffel ride eases us gently into the climb, the glorious first few kilometres are steady and enjoyable, and as we achieve more altitude, the view of the Wanaka basin spreads out below us, golden and crisp and accompanied by a glorious tail wind.
Two hours later we are still climbing. The climbing has been relentless. What starts out as an almost friendly niggle in my back grows in pain and intensity, tendrils of fire burning around my core, unfurling into my limbs, blinkering my vision. From about two hours onward, I retreat deep into myself, sort of forgetting Alex, focusing on moving forward, riding as much as I can. Pushing the bike is the worst. It’s lucky I am such a masochist, some deep, dark twisted part of myself is loving this grovel. Loving the agony. Loving seeing what strategies I can use to urge this bundle of agony for ever upwards.
We traverse an idyllic section of dandelion –carpeted single track, I see one competitor ride straight off the side. We are all pretty tired. The cursing of riders ahead of me signals further climbing.
Alex is riding ahead, urging, encouraging. I have to keep stopping to rest my head on my handle bars. The pain makes me feel unbearably heavy. There is lightening in my back. I try not to look at the Skyline Traverse, leering obscenely at me from across the valley, it’s a big climb and a long run.
Finally the downhill. I have been looking forward to this. But the concentration and core stability required are equally exhausting as the climb. I am sore and nervous, and whinging endlessly to myself. Alex flies down the hill, cornering like a dare-devil, hanging so far over her rear tyre that I am certain she will end up with some sort of friction burn. I try and ride faster; conscious of how painfully slow and drawn out this ride is becoming.
Hurtling down the rough over grown track, I am not looking far enough ahead. I tense up and hit a rock, my front wheel suddenly perpendicular to the bike, my knees grind mercilessly into the handlebars. I complete a textbook flailing-scorpion before landing heavily on my side. A bonfire of pain and frustration and exhaustion engulf me. Stiletto-shod devils of agony dance up and down my body, the biggest one, as always, dances in my head. The storm of tears that have been brewing for a while, crash over me, and I lie all crumpled up in the grass, wondering who will carry me out.
I know Alex is waiting for me below. After a few self-indulgent minutes, I peel myself off the scenery, and cautiously remount the bike-beast. I am disappointed to see that my knees (which I had, moments before, been certain must be compound fractures) were only slightly grazed. Snivelling I make it down to Alex, who firmly but kindly tells me to ride my bike better. We continue.
Part of me can’t help but catch some of the infectious joy that Alex is feeling as she dominates this descent. I hear her cackling as she crashes through Matagouri patches, slithers with exceptional skill down a nasty off camber sheet of silken-grass, and topples head first into a stream.
I toy with the idea of telling Alex that I think my back is buggered and that I need to stop, but her unflappable sense of progress and determination, makes it impossible to even question continuing.
Through transition, more glorious supporters buoying our spirits. More drugs. I decide I need caffeine, and grab a couple of Red Bulls, downing the first one immediately. Once I ease my body out of biking mode and into running mode, I start to feel pretty good. We eat and chatter, and start the climb strong.
Alex is behind me on the rope, and I feel good enough to give it some jandel. Progress feels good. The weather is cooler at altitude, but we are rewarded with exquisite views. Every shade of tussock, sandwiched between paua-shell water and pumice skies.
Shafts of warm sunlight are chased away by hurtling clouds. We pause to put on some warm gear. A marshal barrels towards us, informing us that if we wanted to complete the long course, we must make it to the next marshal station in the next 25min or be short coursed. We were told that we needed to dig deep, that this was going to be the hardest part of the whole race, but if we were lucky we might make it in time.
We hadn’t really considered the short course. I didn’t even really know it was a thing in this race. We put our heads down, and push and push. Struggling alongside several other teams in the same sudden time-poor predicament. We offer each other encouragement. Urging each other to make it. The sense of camaraderie is immense and utterly invaluable.
I can tell that I am working hard, I can hear my lungs whistling with each breath. We make it with 10min to spare. The final team to make it to the checkpoint had to come further, and in less time that we did. They are not having an easy day. Several of us stood at the top and cheered until they made it. High fives were passed around.
Feeling oddly invigorated after this little bit of extra exertion, time for the final push. I down another Red Bull. Mistake. An almost instant stab of unwelcomely familiar urgency grips my core. Surely this is just the usual sort of race-based of digestive stress; it will pass.
Alex informs me that she is feeling dizzy, we feed her, neither of us are having much luck getting food past our lips. Exhausted systems are shutting down, my gut feels like it’s had a chemical peel.
We summit Mt Alpha, and begin the traverse to Roys Peak. The sudden change from climbing to descending is hell on the legs. I am convinced that imminent paralysis will follow. Alex perks up and crushes the downhill. My back starts to hurt again. My stomach is not good. The urgency of the morning begins to repeat itself. I try to ignore it, but famously “you can never trust a fart in an adventure race”. The ridge line is mercilessly free of bushes, rocks, large tussocks or dead sheep to crouch behind. Desperation takes hold. Bloody bib shorts!
A while later I re-join Alex. I am pretty done in, hurting again, and struggling to maintain any sort of speed on the final incline. The whistling of my lungs has become a death rattle. The ache has spread from my back into my ribs. A python of discomfort squeezing away at me with every breath.
I know I must keep eating. It takes me 25 minute to eat one bliss ball. My gag reflex is working overtime. Rummaging in my pack for something less solid, I find some extra Panadol. Gratitude.
Finally the downhill. It’s a long descent. Most of the way, I feel like we are permanently suspended high above the valley. Alex has a second wind, and makes good progress. I don’t seem to be able to make my legs work properly. Its not until we are quite close to the bottom that it feels like we are going to make it. Our gorgeous supporters are all there, they are so proud and encouraging, it almost feels undeserved, and at the same time very well earned.
I have reached the end of my tether. I am empty. Sluggish. Dragging my feet. Barely stumbling along. Alex puts me on the tow, and drags me along the final kilometres to the finish. Alex keeps telling me I am doing well, and that we are nearly there. Unbeknownst to me, the effort of this final heroic exertion has given her a nose bleed.
The relief of the imminent finish line is overwhelming. I tear up a few times - making supremely ugly, steam-rollered-duck crying faces. Where are those agony seeking videographers now?
The blue finish line arch, our merry band of followers forming a guard of honour. We sort of fall across the line. So grateful to have finished. Thank you Alex!
I think I can safely say that I truly underestimated what it would take to complete Red Bull Defiance competitively. Being Coast fit did not prepare us for the climbing and descending we tackled in Wanaka. It was a valuable reminder that nothing beats specificity of training, and humbling to race amongst so many strong, encouraging, tenacious athletes. High fiving the teams we had raced with at the finish line was golden.
To our incredible band of supporters: Ethel Ní Mhurchú, Eliot Drake and Echo, Cara Sibtsen, Katy Loader, Rebecca Monk, Jessica Rathgen, Gabbie Ernst, Ann-Louise Railton, Alex Nichol, Alex Huffadine, Natalie Jakobs, Jono Hall, Penny Batchelor, Batch and Gordon Robinson, and to all of the teams, marshals and race organisers that offered kind words, encouragement and spend your whole weekend supporting us, from the bottom of our hearts:
You will never know how much you being there helped me to make it through a really tough and demanding weekend. Feeling your pride at our achievement is incredible and heart-warming. I don’t think I could have finished the race without you.
Alex. Thank you for being my team mate and friend. I am so grateful that I got to experience all of the amazing and wonderful facets of getting to race in a team: the support, the encouragement, the physical assistance, the laughs, the tears, the food fantasies, the urgent loo breaks. Couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else. It was a pleasure to see you smash it, to watch you unleash the beast, and to see you push through the hard times. All the very best for Coast – I hope you have the very best race. Race Strong. Race Big. Race Happy.
Thank you to Barracuda Kayaks for getting us to the start line.
I would absolutely do Red Bull Defiance again – with a few more training sessions in the bank. My only regret is that there is not one single ‘blue steel’ photo of Alex Martin and I from the event.