Words: Robbie Hunt
with thanks to the amazing Godzone photographers for the images.
Back in June 2022 I got an offer from Rob P to join Team ThoughtSports for GZ 2023 - the instruction was clear, we’re aiming for Top 3 and 1st International Team. With just the one expedition length adventure race to my name, it was a daunting prospect, but an opportunity too good to pass up. I was assured by Tim Boote that the organisation would be thorough, and we’d head to NZ leaving no stone unturned.
Fast forward to 7 days out from the race start, and you might be surprised to hear that there were still a lot of stones that needed turning. Fortunately, Dougal Allan (formerly Multisport and Adventure Racing star now turned professional sailor) has a lot of contacts and a lot of gear that he doesn’t really need anymore. He probably did enough to warrant a formal sponsorship position, but he’ll have to settle for this thank you in the race report.
Jumping forward again to just 24hrs before race start and I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. I was organised, but Team Thoughtsports as a collective still had a few small matters to resolve. In Te Anau 3/5 of the team were present - Teagan, Tim and myself. The remainder of the team (Kathryn & Rob), and the majority of the mandatory gear was somewhere between Melbourne and Queenstown. Our race was at the mercy of the Qantas baggage handlers. As Australia’s most reliable airline, and with exceptional recent lost baggage form we had very little to worry about. Although it would’ve made for great reading if something went critically wrong, it just didn’t, everything arrived, Kathryn and Rob did their food shopping and turned up in Te Anau with about 20hrs to Race Start. Not conventional perhaps, but it was relatively smooth sailing thus far. We did a couple of hours of power (packing) and got to bed.
It’s an unsual feeling heading to registration in the morning knowing that in only a matter of hours you’ll be on the start line and you’ll probably have to encounter at least 5 sunsets before you get to enjoy a proper nights sleep. Maybe the more experienced athletes don’t have these thoughts, but it still is a cause of great discomfort for me. The line into rego was very long and it was moving very slowly, Kathryn suggested “someone” wait in line and call the others when they were in the building. I was nominated and the team hierarchy (as if there’d been any doubt anyway) was set.
The rego process went very smoothly, and we made good friends with the white water safety officer. He first told Kathryn & Rob that their life jackets were too old, and could only be referred to as “jackets”. Then Tim’s home made throw bag impressed him greatly “if I turn up for a paddle and you arrive with that throw bag, we’re never paddling together again”. Rob sweet talked his way through both challenges and we were heading back to the house ready for the release of the maps.
Planning and map marking for someone who knows nothing about planning or map marking is an interesting time. I sat and watched with interest as the others debated the challenging terrain that lay ahead. I quickly learned that there’s about 25 degrees of magnetic variation in in southern NZ, and I got very good at drawing tram tracks on the maps that would help Rob remember this fact. As for the difficulty of the challenge that lay ahead? I was still very ignorant. The 3pm start time waited for no one, and before we knew it we were rolling through Te Anau on our bikes to the start line by the lake.
Leg 1 - MTB 27km
AR start lines always fascinate me (I’ve only been on two, but I reckon that’s enough to know what they’re all like). Just like your average fun run, self seeding really brings out the best of people. Given the propensity of the population to be leading when you pass the first photographer, we found ourselves about 15 rows back, and I was growing apprehensive of the bike handling skills of some of those around us. With this in mind we made a concerted effort to move our way through the peloton as cautiously, yet quickly, as we could. I kept my questionable chat (for which I have a reputation) to a minimum, and before too long we were on the front of the main pack. We were happy to be leading the group, even if we were taking a bit of wind, as it gave us the best chance of staying out of trouble. A slight nav mishap with parallel roads just before TA meant we dropped back into the pack a little, but it was a minor error in the scheme of things and we settled back into our work quickly.
Leg 2 - Packraft 39km (River)
We made it to TA, I fought tooth and nail at the checkpoint to grab the puncher before a host of others who’d arrived there well before I did, and we were soon into packrafts. This was a leg that we expected ourselves to be competitive in. I have been told that this is due to the fact that we paddled MRS packrafts, and not because we are mildly competent paddlers. We possibly made one mistake with the packrafts we brought over though, unfortunately, the best way to describe the whitewater on this leg was that we regretted not bringing the Barracuda rather than the new self-bailing packrafts.
We paddled well as a team and moved our way into the top 3, but the biggest moment to come from this leg was the realisation amongst the team of the enormity of the task that we had lumped our incredible support crew with. Whether it was ignorance, or arrogance, I don’t know, but it wasn’t until we were halfway through the paddle that we started to talk about just how much work lay ahead of Teagan and her trusty Ford Territory (admittedly it was the Rally Edition).
Leg 3 - Trek 32km (+2450m, -2400m Elevation)
Leg 3 was set to be the first true test of the race, it was to be a demanding trek leg that would take us up and over the snow capped Mt Titroa and through the first night. One thing that I didn’t experience in my previous expedition race was that good navigators typically find themselves in similar spots on the course. As a result, early in races things can become a bit of a procession as teams sort themselves out, and settle into the pace they can sustain for the next 4 or 5 days. In the end, this approach actually set the tone for our race (and the race of a few others). As we ground our way up the seemingly endless slopes of Titiroa we found ourselves alongside our new mates, Team Tiki Tour. Things started friendly (and ended friendly fortunately) but there were some competitive moments in between. We were content to let them set the pace (and undertake the bulk of the nav), whilst we tried to find a rhythm. Fair to say some members of team Tiki Tour didn’t love this idea, and many concerted efforts were made to drop us. These attacks from Tiki Tour led to one of my highlights of the race though. After summiting Mt Titiroa at first light, Tiki tried to make the most of the “Aussies lack of experience on snow capped mountains” by launching it down the backside of the mountain. As we raced (and this was actually racing) down sandy screes and rocky slopes we were spotted and subsequently photographed by the event chopper. They were obviously keen to capture some gold, and I think they got what they were after (although apparently they wanted a bit more chat).
Tiki had a few more cracks at us on the way into TA3, but we weren’t to be shaken. The shores of the lake came into view, and the next stage of this adventure was upon us.
Leg 4 - Packraft 27km (Lake)
Packrafts are best used on rivers and in whitewater, unsurprisingly this lake paddle didn’t provide much of either. Still, it was one of the most spectacular paddles I’ve done. There were a couple of portages, one a little confusing, but otherwise it was a fairly uneventful paddle. Spirits were high, no one was particularly sleepy and we had the boats moving nicely. Soon we were closing in on the beach, about to hit TA4 and embark on a ride up a big hill.
Leg 5 - MTB 24km (950+ Elevation)
If you’d been relying on the very insightful logistics planner we’d been issued a week out from the race, you’d have come unstuck on this one. This little MTB packed almost 1000m of vertical, and you had to wrangle your packrafts up the hill for added measure. With this in mind, I made the tactical decision to crack out my now favourite painkiller for the first time in the race - Nuromol. With limited heavy pack training (I’d convinced Rob pre race that I would be fine with the pack and he had nothing to worry about), this leg worried me a little. It was either going to be my back or my arse that packed it in, and I wasn’t keen to find out which way it would go. Short answer is the Nuromol worked. It was a tough climb, and it required a little bit of walking, but TA eventually arrived and it was a joyous sight to see Teagan (and assistants) after a couple of back to back TAs with no one to look after us but ourselves (as I still live at home you must understand the challenge of this for me).
Leg 6 - Packraft/Trek 73km (+2600m, -3450m Elevation)
This was the crux leg of the race, and what a beauty. Again, I had no idea what was coming. We had estimated it would take over 24hrs to complete, but for some unknown reason I just couldn’t comprehend how many steps and paddle strokes that would be. Funnily enough, I still actually don’t know.
I have now determined that my approach to adventure racing is to focus on the next milestone, whether it be CP, TA or my personal favourite - the next sleep. Heading out on this leg I was buoyed by the knowledge that we would not push through two nights in a row, so at some point over the course of the next 12hrs (we left TA late in the afternoon) I would get to rest my eyes. Naturally, this positive thought faces off in my mind against the torturous thoughts of what it will feel like to awaken from that temporary slumber. I could not let this get me down, after all they would be “tomorrow’s” worries. We made good time on this leg, picking up CP15 in fading light under Tim Boote navigation, before we gladly intersected the track that would lead us into CP16 and the transition to the packrafts. We made CP16 at an ungodly hour, and settled into the comfortable sleeping quarters you come to expect with expedition racing. 3hrs later I went through the usual experience of being convinced that I was only dreaming my alarm was going off, and there was no way it could be time to get up. Time waits for no one though, so after suffering through the reality of those torturous thoughts that had been intruding my mind the previous evening, we soon had packrafts blown up and frog skins on. We paddled in silence as we pulled ourselves through the eerie darkness that shrouded the lake. For a while the dull splash of paddles was the only noise to punctuate the air, chatter was at a minimum as we warmed into the day. We collected the few CPs without too much trouble, and we soon had company in the form of an event photographer looking to catch the morning mist. This photographer portrayed the magic of the lake far better than I ever could. Refer Exhibits below:
After the race Kathryn said she was interested to hear my take on this next moment in the race (that turned out to be quite crucial). So, here’s my honest opinion on what unfolded (unless Rob P edits it before posting). We arrived at CP19 in great shape - 2nd overall and in good spirits, but we were faced with the toughest navigational call of the race. Leave the packrafts behind and trek the ridge back down the lake, or paddle back down the lake (collecting CP20 as an out and back) before trekking out over the range at southern end of the lake with the packrafts on your back. The team was divided three ways. Kathryn wanted to packraft, and Tim agreed. Rob P wanted to trek and was getting a bit antsy about the prospect of not. I just wanted to know what to do so Kathryn didn’t tell me off for taking too long to get ready.
The decision appeared to be made - with Kathryn holding firm on packrafting. Rob was visibly annoyed at this. There was still one unknown though - Avaya. What did they do and could we figure it out? The lake was foggy when we paddled up, so we could easily have passed them like ships in the night. Nothing was being given away by the marshals, but one unsuspecting fisherman may have slipped up when asked where the last team crossed the weir. So the packrafts got rolled up, Rob P was happy (well as happy as someone rolling around in Didymo poison packrafts could be), and we were off. Probably still unsure what just unfolded back in TA. Would this be a brilliant move? Or a chance missed?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and since the race I’ve had all manner of unqualified navigators tell us we made a mistake on this leg. Look, we probably made a couple, but let me just say, from one unqualified navigator to another, that it’s no Google Maps out there. Ultimately it looks like the differences were down to which teams executed their chosen route rather than if they trekked or packrafted.
The ridgeline trek became an epic. We got a glimpse of Team No Idea (who we’d already crossed paths with as they did an out and back to CP20) paddling down the middle of the lake, and I think at that point we knew that there might be trouble ahead. They looked quick, and we were hot, low on water, were battling Tiki Tour again and hadn’t found the ridgeline track that we pinned our hopes on. All the same, there was plenty of action ahead and we just had to keep ticking along.
We trekked on, Tiki Tour dropped us at one point, we overtook them dropping off the ridge, but they re-joined as we stomped our way up the corresponding spur. In the end we came to a decision point together, and we all wondered if the race would just carry on like this? Rob had earmarked Oblong Hill as our route of choice. Expecting to pick up a track off the summit all the way down to the lakeside track. Interestingly, Tiki had other ideas, so we wished each other luck and agreed that this would at least give the dot watchers something to get excited about. Unfortunately for us our dot watching supporters would be on the wrong side of that excitement. After battling thick scrub that almost brought me to tears on the way up Oblong Hill, we got a bit excited by being able to move at a speed greater than 100m/hr, and dropped off the summit a fraction early. After a few hours climbing in and out of canyons, and pulling clifftop manoeuvres that I’m glad darkness hid the consequences of mistake, we pulled the pin. We’d camp up till daylight and regroup in the morning.
What seems impossible in the night, is so often straight forward by day. At sunrise we found our way out of the cliffs, dropped off the mountain and made our way relatively smoothly to the lakeside track. A run back along the road to TA6 was all that stood between us and the end of an epic leg.
Leg 7 - 120km MTB
We finally rolled into TA in fourth spot, licked our wounds, and were glad the damage wasn’t more severe. We knew there were teams right up our tail though. The 120km MTB leg didn’t appear to have too much spice. Limited elevation, not heaps of nav decisions, and it was mostly going to be on solid roads. We made a couple of small mistakes on the way out to the next CP, and this resulted in a coming together that would be the beginning of an incredible battle. Rab Wahine joined us for the first time in the race. We basically rode the remainder of the ride as an 8 person peloton, enjoying new company (funny how things change…) and ticking off the kilometres. Once again knowing the real tests lay ahead.
Leg 8 - 55km Trek
This leg was when the battle with Rab really took off. After a leisurely walk and talk for the first few hours, we sat on the back of their faultless nav for a while (shout out to Georgia (and Aaron of course) - but I hope more women take up navigating). As this began to draw on, the competitive side of people rightfully comes out, frustration creeps in, and the pleasant conversations are punctuated by murmurs of displeasure. Sound like a theme developing?
As night drew in, we dropped off Corner Peaks with just one more range between us and CP25. We chose to tackle this climb before we slept (Rab had pulled up stumps already), and although we were getting pretty buggered it proved to be a decision that provided one of the moments of the race. A brutal climb up a scree that took us to an elevation that was a bit higher than the targeted route meant we were so cooked when we reached the highpoint that we decided to sleep right where we were. 1400m up, above the clouds and with a view of the stars I’ve never experienced. Two hours later we awoke to a sunrise like I’ve never experienced either. 5 minutes later it was a feeling of cold like I haven’t experienced. The full range of emotions, but all part of what makes GZ so great. Tip No. 1 - if cold, start moving. If still cold, move even faster. I promise you it works.
The remainder of this trek went very well. That was until Rob and I had a close encounter with a cliff. Descending off what Tim Boote titled the last major climb of the whole race, we were slowly making our way down a steep slope of tussock grass. I took a small slide, gathered myself and was just getting up when Rob decided he’d have a go at the old slip and slide too - this time though he wanted the full experience. On his was down he collected me, and we took off down the slope like a two person bob sleigh. Fear is a wonderful thing, and for that second or two before we stopped (and I don’t know how we stopped) I got a really good taste of it. We pulled up a couple of metres short of a nasty rocky chute. I don’t know what state we’d have been in had we gone over the edge, but I don’t think I’d have enjoyed it. Tim summarised it best when admitting he was torn between fits of laughter and genuine fear for our safety. After the tussock grass slope, the rest of the leg was a cruise. TA8 soon arrived and you could tell there was a hope - light was sighted at the end of the tunnel.
Leg 9 - MTB 80km
We took off on this leg buoyed by the hope of a a good sleep once we got to the next TA due to the dark zone. Following our strong finish to the trek we also took off with a small lead over Rab, and I think both teams were glad for a bit of separation. Unfortunately, a couple of incidents on our part once again meant a coming together of the two teams. Kathryn took an inspection of the pine forest that was far closer than most would consider wise, before a mechanical about half way through ensured Rab re-joined. Tensions were probably at their highest over the next 5km, with neither team particularly keen to see the other. However, with no technical riding, and a large tarmac component to follow we accepted our fate and once again formed an 8 person peloton. The ride was fairly cruisy, until we realised we were cutting it very fine for the 11-12pm arrival window. After a dismal Coast 2 Coast performance I don’t know if I was the best choice to send forward to drive the group, but fortunately I had enough in the tank to elevate the speed to an acceptable level. We arrived at 11.58 (which caused much distress to our poor support crews), but Tim assured me he was never worried. The Burgers and Pizza that Teagan had sourced from some extraordinary corner store (still cooking at 11pm?) were a highlight. Jumping into a cosy tent with a sleeping mat for each person felt like 5 star comfort. A final paddle, bike and run tomorrow and it would be all over. For the first time in the race, I actually believed I was going to get through. Finishing races is rarely my goal, I try (often poorly) to be competitive, but when it comes to GodZone the mindset was quite different.
Leg 10 - 60km Paddle
What follows a good, but under normal circumstances very short, sleep? A terrible wake up experience - and so it was. I pass on my sincerest apologies to Teagan, but hearing her voice sound the morning alarm was one of the lowlights of the race. Puffy eyes, and zombie like movements followed for the next 30 minutes before the stress of an imminent start time kicked us into gear and we were moving with the unrivalled fluidity of people who’d been smashing themselves for 4.5 days.
For me this paddle will be remembered for one thing only - the famous Steve Gurney designed kayak seat - the (un)Bumfortable. A pressure point like I’ve never experienced before meant for some of the most unconventional paddling positions you’ll see (was a hark back to my old paddling days when I had no core strength and I used to slouch like I was sitting in the banana lounge).
After Rab pulled away through the top half of the river, we clawed them back through the bottom half when the deeper water allowed for more consistent paddling. After a couple of attempts to open a gap to them, we conceded that the tug boat like wake that the AR Duos produced was too easy to sit on, and backed off the pace. Rob P will want me to add that he didn’t like this tactic, and wished to keep the pace high. Would it have resulted in a different outcome at the finish line? If you think yes, I’m sure he’d love you to tell him. The rest of us accepted the final result would be determined over a duathlon though.
Leg 11 - Beach Ride
After a transition of ITU efficiency (not really, but on Day 5 of an Expedition Race it felt slippery) we were off on MTBs. Rab had produced a small gap in TA so a hectic chase on the outbound road ensued. Surprise surprise, the two teams re-joined. With a flat beach ride to follow were we headed for a 15km beach sprint to determine who claimed the coveted fourth place, and with it a slightly more valuable Rab product voucher? It would not quite work out this way, Rab had proven technically stronger on MTB’s throughout the race, and with an awkward final couple of km’s through the sand dunes they took the opportunity to open up a small gap as we entered the final TA of the race.
Leg 12 - 15km Beach Run + 100m Swim
With a minute or two deficit heading into the run we knew it was going to be an uphill battle to claw them back. However, after 5 days of racing you never really know what’s going to happen. Will everyone even be able to walk? I’ve learned there’s always hope in this game. After we worked our way back through the dunes and onto the beach, we got our first glimpse. The gap was bigger than expected, but I was personally up for a good old fashioned tow battle. So I got the bungy out and Kathryn and I got to work. We tried as hard as we could, and I’m simply amazed at how Kathryn was able to will herself along the beach given she was totally cooked (read on). Everyone knows the result though. Rab were more than up to the challenge and in the end extended their lead as we arrived at the estuary and faced the last big decision of the race (admittedly, I still had to tackle the decision of how many post race beers I should have). The choice was simple: a 100m swim with a big ingoing tide, or a 3km walk/run into the town and over the bridge. Of course, we went the swim, our massive Australian egos would never have allowed anything else. Perhaps when Kathryn started with “I’m not sure if this is a good idea” we should have re-evaluated, but before we could think about it she had dived in and was off and stroking…. for about 50m. Half way across I get the call I didn’t expect “Robbie… I think I’m in trouble”. Now you might think I was taken aback by Kathryn’s position of unsafety (I was), but I knew it must be serious because for 5 days Kathryn had referred to me as “Alex”, so to hear my actual name was quite confronting. After overcoming the shock, I swam over (not feeling crash hot myself if I’m honest) and tried to take my mind back to primary school swim lessons where I was taught about survival strokes and what to do when you approach a swimmer in trouble. After a minute or so Kathryn had had enough, and told us to get on with it. So we “freestyled” our way to the far bank. We hadn’t covered ourselves in glory, but we’d made it across the estuary and at that point we took it as a big win.
A final CP, a stroll down the last beach and we joined up with Teagan (whose part in our success was probably greater than the four of us who’d completed the course) as we crossed the line for 5th place and 1st International team in the sunny town of Riverton.
I got straight into my Jimmy’s Pie while Rob took care of media responsibilities. Shortly after I finished my pie I set about tracking down the organiser to see if I could get another. I’m not really sure what happened after that, the two mid strength beers probably went straight to my head, and then I was napping on the grass - very much content in what we had just accomplished.
Godzone was a remarkable experience, and one I will never forget. I’m very grateful to Thought Sports for their willingness to take a punt on a mildly competent multisport athlete who hadn’t done as much heavy pack training as he should have. Kathryn, Rob and Tim are all incredibly experienced and it was the fact that I could draw on this experience throughout the race that allowed me to get through in much better shape than I probably deserved to.
I don’t really know what to say that would adequately thank Teagan for her efforts, her task was monumental, yet all our TA’s went off without a hitch. Operating solo and out the back of an SUV, whilst most other teams had hordes of support crew and campervans that slept the hoards, is just incredible. The best I can offer as a thanks, is the promise that the next time you and Tim come to Tassie I’ll get some fresh veggies out of Mum’s garden and make you up salad?
I would also like to say a big congratulations to the Rab Wahine team. It was great racing, and they were simply too strong in the sprint up the beach - they were deserved 4th place finishers. I thoroughly enjoyed the battle, and I hope that feeling was reciprocated - maybe after the dust had settled a few days later. It was also a pleasure to spend time with TikiTour out on course. All exceptional athletes, and with the competitive edge you would expect of a team that ended up finishing on the podium.
As for Team Thought Sports - given our less than ideal build up, the difficulties of navigating the foreign NZ terrain, and the challenges of travelling and racing in NZ generally, we are very happy with what we produced. We gave it everything we had, and you can’t do much more than that. If you throw in the fact that “Aussies can’t navigate”, fifth place in one of the hardest expedition races in the world is a truly remarkable outcome.
Will there be a GZ New Zealand 2024 for Thought Sports? I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Rob and Kathryn if they could put up with Tim and I talking about Coast to Coast again for 5 days straight.
If you have made it to the end of this report, then you are probably interested in racing the new GODZONE AUSTRALIA event in September 2023. Brought to you be the Thought Sports events team, with the experienced support of 11 Chapters of Godzone new Zealand, you won't want to miss Chapter 1 on the Coffs Coast of NSW.
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