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Defying the Odds – Red Bull Defiance

Arms overflowing with sporting equipment that would make covering 160 kilometres over the following two days slightly more pleasurable, we headed for the administration tent to register and check off our compulsory items required to compete in Red Bull Defiance. I nervously looked around at the fellow competitors, overwhelmed by their fit, toned bodies and wondered if we belonged with this crowd or stood out like dog’s balls. Excited jitters were only just winning over nervous butterflies as race organisers placed a big tick next to our team name, #11 Say Yes to Adventure, which included Scott Waterman and myself. Because of Scott’s young age (26, although for some reason he thinks he’s only 25), it meant our average age was under 30, putting us in the ‘Young Guns’ category. Thank you, no complaints here!

With our gear checked off we received numbers for our paddles, bikes, bags and tops and were then handed a plastic bag with our race singlets. “One size fits all” she told us. Really? An awkward second of silence followed as we both looked at her, then she laughed. So maybe we were about to prove that theory wrong. Seriously?? We had to wear these singlets that weighed a ton and almost covered my bike shorts, but were lucky if they covered Scott’s belly button. And to make matters worse, they were as wide as a bus! I’m pretty sure someone who doesn’t race in these events chose these (well I hope so anyway!). Thank goodness the following two days didn’t reach 30+ degrees; exactly what Wanaka had experienced a few weeks before.

You couldn’t possibly get two more different people together if you tried – Scott is six-foot three (nicknamed the ‘human noodle’ by Jacqs), skinny as a bean pole and with a very gentle and caring nature. Me on the other hand – five-foot nothing, what people very kindly call ‘good power to weight ratio’ and I will admit, I don’t tend to shrink into the corner. We even swapped our 2XU compression calf sleeves we received as part of our race entry, Scott now has the small! They say opposites attract, maybe that’s why over the following two days we had an absolute blast together (from my perspective anyway).

Rewind eight months – I was talking to Scott about upcoming races and asked him if Red Bull Defiance was one he’d be keen to do, and would he want to be my team-mate? A two-day multisport race, it requires two people to battle a total elevation of 5,238m (Mount Cook is only 3,724m) around Wanaka’s rugged but breathtakingly beautiful landscape over seven punishing stages, involving running, kayaking, mountain biking, abseiling and clay-bird shooting. Covering eight private stations and DOC land, it’s one of the most challenging sporting events New Zealand has to offer. It really is an event like no other, with over 70% of competitors coming from off-shore. Not surprisingly Scott was instantly on board, so as we sat at Mum and Dad’s kitchen table and paid our entry fee, eight months seemed like a lifetime away.

Race briefing was held at 5pm on the Friday evening, where we were told of a course change for the following day due to the predicted nor’wester. Instead of a 15 kilometre kayak into the Wanaka foreshore to finish the day, it was now cut short to five kilometres across Lake Wanaka, landing on the east side of Glendhu Bay, where we would get out and run the last 15 kilometres along the Millennium track back into Wanaka. With nothing left to do apart from putting some dinner into our bellies and try to get a good nights sleep, we headed home in anticipation for the adventure ahead.

Through a friend we were asked if we wanted to use a tracking device, developed by Nic Cavanagh from Sports Timing, based in Wanaka. Still in the trial stages, it was used on Day Two for the top five teams, but we were using it on both days. To us this sounded great as it meant our support crew could follow us and see when we were getting close to transitions. For those of you who tracked us and could only see one team – this is why! Thanks Nic!

Day One43km Mountain Bike along Minaret Station + 9km Run over Rocky Mountain, including 60m Special Stage Abseil + 5km Kayak over Lake Wanaka + 15km Run along the Millennium Trail

All too quickly 6.30am arrived and Scott and I were lining up to board the bus to take us to the barge, which would transport both of us and our bikes across the top of Lake Wanaka to Minaret Station and the start of Day One. Kitted out in our cycling gear, we also had our kayak life jackets for the crossing and extra layers to keep the body warm. The nor’wester meant the lake was choppy and with rain clouds threatening overhead the nerves were starting to take over. The 40-minute trip was over in no time and without any fussing around, 100 excited competitors sat on their bikes waiting for the starting hooter to sound.

Mountain biking has never really been my thing, and I wondered if I’d pushed the boat out a little too far in this race. The first ten or so kilometres were fine, a 4WD undulating track which was completely rideable. I’d told myself I had to keep riding through the pain, and only get off a) when I fell off or b) if Scott hopped off first. This didn’t quite work out, I didn’t exactly crash but there are a few new bruises on the legs, and once I even managed to ride further than Scott (we don’t count every other time he rode further than me). I’d also told myself that brakes were for wimps, and sometimes it’s far better to just let the bike go (within reason!). So while I didn’t win any speed records, I rode all of the downhill and tried to keep the walking to a minimum. That was until we hit the river crossing, followed by one almighty uphill slog. Single-track, mud, slippery grass and steep vertical gain. Once we finally made it onto more solid ground Scott even took my bike at one stage and pushed both of ours together (yes, seriously, this guy is amazing). I considered apologising for slowing us down, but that was going to get us nowhere, so I just sucked in more air and made sure I kept up.

Just under three and a half hours later we cruised down the last section of a single-track, met the West Wanaka gravel road and rode into the first transition. Was I glad to leave my bike behind! In a very common theme for the weekend, we were greeted by an amazing support crew who cheered us on, offering advice and friendly smiles just when we needed them. A quick change out of the bike gear and it was on to the first run section of the day, nine kilometres up and over Rocky Mountain, a quick 60 metre abseil down and a run back along the flat to our kayak. I had no idea what was in store on this leg and wasn’t expecting it to be so steep. I struggled to find a rhythm, not helped by both of us getting cramp (thank goodness for Cramp Stop). I was so pleased to make it to the top that I wasn’t at all nervous about the abseil, like I thought I would have been. It was great to see friendly volunteers out on the course – Guy McCone and Mal and Sally Law, you guys did such an awesome job out there.

We had to wait at the top for the lines to become available and were stoked we both got to go down at the same time. This abseil turned out to be the absolute highlight over both days. The nature of the race meant it was a super-fast safety briefing – “Left hand here, right hand there, push the rope through here, pull the rope like this, off you go!” Right, OK, don’t look down! We both were straight over the edge with yelling and yahooing from the supporter’s club echoing in the valley below. What goes on tour, stays on tour (or racing) and maybe it was because there was no way I could reach Scott to hit him, but a very interesting conversation was had on this rocky face!

In a flash we were at the bottom, careful not to touch the carabiners which were now super hot, followed by a quick run/jump/leap (my legs were too short for most of the steps!) to the bottom where we took the harnesses off. The final four kilometres of the run along the flat to the kayaks was great, still buzzing from the abseil and helped along but our fantastic support crew.

We reached the last main transition for the day, where we pulled on life jackets and spray skirts, fuelled up with electrolytes, some Red Bull (of course!) and our own ‘Pub Lunch’ – a concoction we’d designed which included pork scratching, salted cashews and tamarind almonds – exactly what you’d find on the bar at your local and perfect for any endurance race. It was so delicious! We both really enjoyed the kayak leg and wished we could have cruised all the way in to the finish, but instead it was a quick 30-minute trip over to the other side before pulling the packs back on and heading off to run the last leg of the day.

15 kilometres is quite a run at the best of times, 15 kilometres after a bike, run, abseil, run and kayak had my legs letting me know this wasn’t going to be a cruise into the finish. We did manage a steady pace though, helped by Scott pulling me up the hills to keep up with him!

It’s always such a relief to see the finish line, imagining it in my mind for the last five or so kilometres, so as we crossed in a time of 07:52:16, to clapping and cheering, I was exhausted but happy. After some big hugs all around, we headed to the lake to wash the encrusted sweat off our faces and to provide some relief to our aching muscles. I looked up behind the Wanaka township to see Mount Criffle and the Pisa Range, Mount Alpha and Mount Roy. What had I signed up for!?! Did I really want tomorrow to come?

Day Two – 20km Kayak over Lake Wanaka/Clutha River, Clay Bird Shoot Special Stage, 28km Mountain Bike along the Pisa Range, 25km Skyline run along Mount Alpha and Mount Roy

The first stage of the day started with a 20-kilometre kayak straight off the Wanaka foreshore, around Eeley Point and down the fast-flowing Clutha River. It was raining softly but was still warm due to the nor’west, with a few waves appearing but nothing too major. We arrived fresh and ready at 6.15pm for a 6.30am start. A quick change to the pedal lengths for Scott (there was no changing mine, they were already as short as they could go!), pulled on our spray skirts and we were ready for the day ahead. To say our start was like a fine-tuned machine would be a massive exaggeration – I forgot to put the rudder down, I couldn’t get my spray skirt on and we were beached, making take-off rather slow – but we got there and quickly found ourselves cruising along at a steady pace. It was a relief to hit the river with the flow quickly increasing our speed, with an uneventful but pleasant couple of hours kayaking, and I only told Scott once what line to take! Poor Scott, he did an awesome job, even with me forgetting to lock the rudder in!

We pulled into the beach, quickly changing out of our kayaking gear, pulling on our packs and headed a couple of kilometres along the river track and up the hill to Oxbow and the second Special Stage of the race – clay-bird shooting. Scott has a pretty good eye, OK, I lie, Scott is a bloody champion with a gun, I guess his past career in the Army has a wee bit to do with that! We only had to hit one clay, but there were two chances, with two shots allowed per clay. So we agreed I would step up first, have a crack and if I missed Scott would step up and annihilate it. And that’s exactly what happened. It was far from my finest moment; I closed the wrong eye, I didn’t even hold the gun correctly. To be honest I don’t think I even saw the bloody thing! Just ‘bang, bang’. Up stepped Scotty and blew the clay apart with his first shot – that’s my boy! So we avoided the two-minute time penalty and ran off in search of our bikes for the next stage.

I was pretty confident my mountain biking skills hadn’t got any better overnight, and I’d spoken to a few people who had done the race previously so knew we were in for one hell of a grind up to the top of the Pisa Range, a total of 28km and 1,278m elevation. Scott had made a brilliant tow out of an old tyre tube and two pieces of rope, with a carabiner attached to each end, which we tied around his seat post and my handlebar stem. We decided to set it up right from the start heading out of transition, and what a lifesaver. I don’t actually know how much extra energy he used pulling me, some people say about 10% (most likely more!). But for me it was a mental thing; knowing it was there providing just that little bit extra when I needed it meant I rode far more than I would have ever done by myself. It wasn’t technical riding, it was just a long, slow uphill grind on a 4WD track for the best part of two and a half hours. We rode about 85% of the hill, more than holding our own. I would hate to think what my state of mind would have been like without that tow! The last push to the top was covered in fog, with the Red Bull Media crew videoing us and loving our home-made tow. Apparently, it was the first one they had seen (everyone else had most-likely bought theirs too!).

Downhill… you bloody beauty. Moving fast and giving our bums and legs a rest out of our seats, we only stopped for the odd gate or stile to climb over. I was hot (as much as I could) on Scott’s tail, with him yelling out when rocks or holes would approach. I was just following exactly where he went… so when we came to a sign that said, ‘steep grade’ and he kept riding, I just followed. Holy moly, crikey dick and every swear word under the sun! I still get sweaty palms thinking about it, but I’m so glad there was no time for this and just went for it. By the time I realised this was far steeper than anything I had ever ridden, there was actually no chance of stopping even if I wanted to! You know when I said that brakes were for wimps? Well… I had both brakes on as hard as I could, with my back tyre spinning out from under me, but somehow, I managed to get to the bottom still attached to my bike. Scott looked back with me right behind him and laughed. Thank god he didn’t think that was a walk in the park either!!

We cruised the last kilometre into Cardrona Valley and the final checkpoint of the race, thankful the mountain bike leg was over but also really proud of how I had gone. OK, so I know Scott was towing me, but I felt I had put in a good effort to stay with him! Jacqs and Nathan greeted us with friendly smiles and words of encouragement, informing us we were tracking really well and were sitting in the middle of the pack (far better than day one!). In fact, they were at home watching a movie when they checked the tracker, only to find we were already on the descent! They boosted for their car and only had to wait five minutes for us to arrive. Another good transition had us leaving at the same time as two other teams who came in ahead of us. We decided to use the tow rope right from the start for the run too.

Ahead of us we had a gruelling final stage – a massive 27km/1,848m elevation single-track run up Spots Creek to Mt Alpha and Roy’s Peak before a jarring descent and lakeside trail to the finish line in Wanaka township. Scott’s step dad had told us ‘play to your strengths’ and at that very moment, our strength was Scott!

We quickly settled into a steady pace with the legs moving well, taking on more electrolytes and some ‘Pub Lunch’ (damn that was good, until it got stuck in my throat resulting in a coughing fit!). It didn’t take long for us to pull away from the other two teams, and even catch and overtake another. It really was mind over matter; one foot in front of the other. A friendly “Go team Say Yes to Adventure” from volunteer Guy McCone half way up put a smile on both of our faces as we charged past him feeling good. We could see a steep zig-zag grunt ahead of us, so after a quick drink in the stream nearby it was head down and moving forward. For a solid six hours I checked out Scott’s ass, not a bad view and I definitely wasn’t complaining, considering he was towing me up the hill! Scott kept me entertained with many army stories, always starting off with “Back in the war…” I have so much respect for Scott, but these stories made me realise he is made of incredible stuff. I can’t even begin to imagine some of the life experiences he has been through. They sure helped take my mind off the job anyway!

We hit the ridge line and passed the checkpoint cut off with an hour and a half to spare. Those who didn’t make this check point before 3.30pm were short coursed down a different ridge line, cutting approx. eight kilometres off the distance. Our aim was not to be short coursed, so we were both so stoked to smash that goal. With the steep uphill now behind us we ran the flats and downs and walked the ups. The terrain was awesome; single-track and rocky, and when the clouds decided to part we were met with views of the Wanaka region that made the climb more than worth it. Hitting the Mount Roy trig we picked up Phil, a Aussie guy whose team-mate had had to pull out due to severe cramps. Race organisers had told him he had to descend with another team and we were the first to come along.

While very happy to be on the downhill, I could feel every muscle in my body as I ran, making it a slow but steady journey down the zig-zag to the car park below. Popping out of the bushes about a kilometre from the bottom were Jacqs and Nathan, an awesome surprise and a boost just when we needed it. A final stop at the road to refill empty water bladders and we were off – five kilometres to go. It was tough going, we were both shattered knowing we had left everything out there, both feeling the 155 kilometres we had covered to get ourselves to this point. Conversation was at a bare minimum, with the occasional ‘You OK Hollie?”, “Yeah, you?” which was said many times over the two days. Hitting the Millennium Trail, which we had run the previous day, I was deep in the hurt box. Sugar, I just needed enough to get me through the final section. A Jet Plane and a Scorched Almond were the answer, and just as I had devoured those Grant, Ben and Jacqs appeared ahead of us. They were a godsend, even if we didn’t talk back or barely smile! I knew they would report back that we were struggling but I thought ‘bugger it’, we were so close, by the time we crossed the finish line our smiles would be back!

Team Say Yes to Adventure My gorgeous god-daughter Briar supporting from Kenya!

The rest of the young met us on the track, Gina even had Flis (my sister) on Facetime from Kenya so she could be a part of it too! At last we hit the shore, running the final kilometre by ourselves while the others went ahead to meet us at the finish. We started off holding hands, but our hands ended up super sweaty, so we flagged that idea and crossed the finish line with all our amazing supporters around us in a total time of 18:14:27. Relief, elation, joy, a big fist pump and a ‘Hell Yeah!’ Red Bull Defiance 2016 was done, and I couldn’t have been happier. To add icing to the already sweet, sweet cake, we managed to climb a few places and win the Under 30 category! Not bad for Scott’s first-ever multisport race. And no Scott, it wasn’t beginners’ luck. Team Say Yes to Adventure is off to a pretty damn good start.

It was so much more than just a race; it was an experience that will I look back on with only great memories (a lot of Type 2 fun) sitting in the same category as Coast to Coast and Marathon des Sables. I’m going to put it out there and say it was harder than MdS. Even though it was only two days, the constant racing and the three different disciplines made it physically far tougher. To those of you who have done Coast and are wondering what you could do next, then I highly recommend this race. It’s literally in our backyard.

To my awesome support crew, who had an alcoholic beverage in their hands at nearly every checkpoint, thank you. You have no idea what it meant to both of us to have you all there, supporting us, taking pics, sorting out gear, cleaning our bikes and just being awesome. Mum and Dad, Ben and Gina, Sue and Chid, Adam and Annabel, Bids and Grant, Jacqs, Caeley, Nathan and Brad, we hope you had as much fun over the weekend as we did.

Scotty, you literally hauled my ass around that course on Day Two. Team racing is awesome; we experienced things others can’t even begin to comprehend and really got to know how each other works. It was more than just those two days though, the training leading up to it, your great attitude and I won’t hold it against you that you’re a whingeing Pom either. But seriously, thanks for everything, I hope this is just the beginning of our adventures together.

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