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My First Real DNF

I read an article earlier in the week by James Kuegler about the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish). Apart from my first-ever dabble in multisport and endurance events when I attempted Spring Challenge in Motueka and we were rescued after 17 hours, I had never had a DNF beside my name. I don’t count that race though; I was a complete newbie with zero experience or expectations. That all changed this weekend however, and surprisingly, I’m OK about it.

The Southern Lakes 24-hour Multisport race is held every year in November around the Cromwell region. When I first heard about it I thought people who competed in it were completely crazy, and then I started to warm to the idea, so when I was talking to Jacqs a few weekends ago and we both figured we had the weekend free, we decided to give it a go. It wouldn’t be that hard, surely?

I had quite a hectic week leading up to it; mag to the printers on Monday, which gave me a few days to catch my breath and sort out some social media and marketing to accompany Volume Three pre-sales (as well as my day job). I wrote a gear-list, serviced my bike on the Thursday (they only just managed to squeeze me in) much to the amusement of the guys in the cycle shop, who must have thought I was a complete idiot. I received the final print-proofs of the mag for one last check on Thursday evening and headed home to edit and pack. My gear-list was left at work… and it turns out my memory isn’t so flash!

It always amazes me how many mistakes I find in each new printout, even after five-plus edits each by Mum and me! Without a doubt I will pick up the finished copy and find another mistake within the first couple of pages. It’s a fine line between looking through the mag and not wanting to look too closely!! Anyway, with the final edits made and to the printer, I hit the road for Cromwell just before 2pm on Friday. I made a slight detour to Scott’s pad west of Ashburton on the way to pick up the compulsory tent fly we needed and a stop at Mum and Dad’s to get some thermoses (turned out we didn’t need them), before turning on cruise control and battling the howling nor’ west on my way south.

I still needed to sign off the changed files so I stopped on the side of the road in Tekapo to download the pages and make sure they had all been updated correctly. I was working from memory here – where was that slight change I made on each page?? I ended up having to read quite a bit to jog my memory; fingers crossed I got them all! So by now I was running well behind schedule. Gear check and registration was between 5pm and 7pm, with race briefing following after. I rolled into the Lowburn Hall car park bang on seven, just in time to change out of my work clothes and into some sporting gear, so at least I looked the part. ‘Just being active in my high heels’, unfortunately doesn’t quite cut it!

Maps and race packs were handed out and we had approximately four and half hours until the gun would go off at midnight. This is where that gear list while I was packing would have come in handy! I’d forgotten my waterproof pants, and no amount of sweet-talking or low tops was going to work here. Fair enough too – we were headed for the top of the surrounding ranges and rain was on the radar. Great. Thank goodness for Caeley, a friend of Jacqs’, who I’d met a month earlier while running the Kepler. We called her up and she had a pair. So a quick trip back to Cromwell where she lives to pick them up, and finally we were ready to organise our gear.

Most teams entered were four people – three males and a female, and using this race as a training run for GODZone in April next year. So the fact there were only the two of us, both females (I’m not saying females are any less capable, but a bit of brutal male strength sure goes a long way) and this was our first 24-hour race, not to mention our not-so-confident skills on the compass and the mountain bike meant it certainly was going to be interesting. But we love a challenge, and we kept reassuring ourselves this was going to be great fun!

The race is similar to GODZone, in the sense that you know what you are doing for each leg – hiking/running/orienteering, kayaking, mountain biking and abseiling – but then it’s up to you to figure out the best route. Most legs are really obvious, apart from the orienteering section. As we sat at the table inside with our maps and compasses trying to sort out the best way to go, we looked around, willing someone to magically appear and tell us the best route! Where were the red lines?? Not there. No, they were for rogains only and according to the Race Director, they would have made it far too easy. “OK, let’s give Scott a call, he’ll be able to help us.” No answer. Google? Can we really ask Google how to use a compass? Bloody hell, we were about to be doing a 24-hour race and we weren’t confident enough to use a compass??!! So Wiki-How talked us through the steps on using a compass, while we nodded to each other, “Yes, that’s exactly what we would have done.” A route was marked; we were not confident at all, but hey, we still had to finish packing, sort out food and if time permitted, squeeze in a quick sleep too!

When I get nervous, I seem to laugh, sometimes it’s extremely inappropriate, but it’s just my natural reaction. I’m a good person to have around when you’ve got a shit joke to tell. We were standing at our cars trying to sort out if we had enough food to last us until we came back to base-camp again, when Jacqs said, completely seriously, “We need to sit down and figure out when is the best time for me to put sunblock on.” Are you serious?!?! I completely lost it, hysterical laughter, the type where you just can’t stop, or breathe, and have to cross your legs to stop you wetting your pants (or is that just me?). We were about to do possibly the biggest race we had ever done (time wise) and Jacqs was more concerned about when to apply sunblock. The people beside us threw us more than one sideways glance, half laughing, half thinking, “Those two are nuts.” When I finally gained control, we decided that the best option for her was to carry it and then she could put it on whenever she needed to (I am actually laughing out loud now as I type this). It was to set the tone for the remainder of the race.

So just before 11pm we were finally all sorted; bags packed, route marked, food at the ready, and with the alarm set for 11.40pm we climbed into our sleeping bags in our car (we missed the memo that everyone else seemed to get to bring a tent, or even a camper van), lay the seats back and forced the eyes closed. The alarm buzzed far too quickly, but we were up, with one last check over our gear before heading to the start line. I was actually really excited; there’s something about being surrounded by people as completely nuts as you, in the pitch black, with no idea what the next 24 hours are going to entail.

BANG. The shotgun blasts and it’s all go. We had already decided this race is first and foremost, about enjoyment and experience. So we cruised along the road heading for Cromwell at a steady speed, at one stage at the rear, before catching a bunch and riding with them. After half an hour we reached the gate and turned off the tarseal for the first climb. I’m a bit of a wimp on my mountain bike, mostly because I’m terrible at unclipping my feet in time, so I’d made a wee goal with myself: I had to be on my bike as much as possible. It kind of worked. It gave my heart rate a good hammering though, so after a while as we kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing, pushing my bike seemed like a better option.

Two and half hours later… of pushing our bikes… we emerged at TA One (Transition Area), where we were to leave our bikes before setting off on the hiking/orienteering course. It was freezing and didn’t take long for the sweat to cool down our bodies. We changed our base layers before adding jackets, hats and gloves (Jacqs had every item of clothing on, which included her puffa jacket, apart from her waterproof pants!). Setting off we were feeling good, eating a bun on the run and clocking up a steady speed. We caught a team ahead of us and walked with them for a while, chatting away and finding out they were from Dunedin, with one of them having done this race every year it had been run (eight years I believe). They too were also using this race as a training run for GODZone.

We came across the first marker (there were four in total) before setting off in search of the next one. It was still pitch black and with our energy levels waning and pace slowing, we found ourselves starting to climb with no other teams around us. It was about 5.30am by now and I felt like I’d had a massive night on the town. We discussed how a hangover isn’t so much the alcohol, but the lack of sleep and energy levels, and concluded that two bottles of wine drunk before 9pm was the way forward! So as Jacqs stopped to go to the loo, I sat down to wait for her. And just couldn’t get up. “Should we just have a 15 minute kip?” I asked Jacq, which she thought was a hell of a good idea. Some multisport racers we were!!

So there we were, lying in the middle of the four-wheel drive track, about three-quarters of our way up Northburn Station when a team passes us, waking us up!!! You can imagine the laughter, from us, not them; I bet they thought we were mad! But they were a good alarm clock (and we were cold!) so we got up, had a pink bun for breakfast and kept on trucking!! With the sun now starting to come up I pulled out my phone and sent a video to my family WhatsApp, telling them we were still alive (Mum gets worried!). We could see a fresh dusting of snow on the Pisa Range, across the valley on the other side of Lake Dunstan.

We decided that collecting the rest of the markers would add at least another four hours on to our time, and that hill looked bloody steep, so we carried on the track that took us back to the transition area and our mountain bikes. We talked a lot of rubbish, had a lot of laughs and decided we were never going to do GODZone. Ever. Sorry Scott. The lack of sleep to me was torture, far more than anything physical. I now have so much respect for anyone who competes in multi-day adventure races. Seagate – wow, a whole different level.

We made it back to the transition with a few other teams arriving just after us. I could see Tane looking at me and I knew exactly what he was thinking, “How are those two girls here at the same time as us?” Don’t worry Tane; we pretty much already had a DNF beside our name! Terry Davis was a volunteer at the transition, so we had a good laugh with him as we showed him our maps. Mine was unreadable due to the fact that I had put it in the back pocket of my bike top, which had then been soaked with sweat, and now was full of holes after trying to peel the pages apart. Jacqs’ wasn’t any better either; when she had pulled it open one time she had ripped off half of it off – conveniently the markers we didn’t collect, so we took this as a sign. Terry was full of enthusiasm for us though as we set off on our bikes once again, thankfully this time heading down!

The ride was almost uneventful, minus a couple of tumbles from both of us, but we collected two more markers before reaching the road at the bottom, crossing over the Cromwell Bridge and back to base-camp about four kilometres up the other side. To say we were shattered was an understatement. I’ve never understood people who cruise into transition and mooch around before heading off for the next leg. But now I do, and that’s exactly what we did. We had a hot cup of Milo and a (longer than we should have) chat to Anna Jaine, who was spectating for the day, before reluctantly pulling the kayak down to the edge of the lake for the next leg. The water was like glass, but we were a bit nervous of the wind that was supposed to pick up, so this was great motivation to get moving. We hopped on the lake at about 10.30am, although it felt like 5pm.

We had hired the double kayak from the GODZone crew, the same one that we will use for Red Bull Defiance in January, so it was good to have a run in it. It’s not made for short people however. (Nothing is!) Even with sneakers on my feet I only just touched the pedals. I think Scott might be on the steering! We had a nice cruise over the lake and under the Cromwell Bridge, before turning up the Kawarau River for a couple more kilometres and pulling into an inlet for the abseil. There was a short climb to the bottom of the cliff, where we pulled on the harnesses before heading up the road and onto the top. There was no queue so it was straight into it, clipping in and heading for the edge. I was a little too light for it to work properly (I wasn’t going anywhere!) so they pulled me back up, loosened the rope and off I went again, this time cruising down the wall to the bottom. It was great fun, but it appears as I have got older, I have lost some of my confidence. I was a little apprehensive and relieved to make it the bottom!

We had already decided before we left on the kayaks that this would be our last stage, we just couldn’t face getting back on our bikes for what would have most likely been a six-hour plus slog up the Pisa Range. So as we leisurely hopped back in our kayaks, after having a chat with one of the event volunteers (who it turns out is an uncle to my flatmate in London!) and some more food, we enjoyed the stress-free kayak back to base camp.

Pulling into the lake’s edge, with 13 hours and five minutes on the clock, we called it a day.

As we sat in the car, demolishing a packet of salt and vinegar chips, watching teams come and go (including the leading team who had just finished the second bike leg!) we had no doubt we had made the right choice. There was a slight ounce of guilt as we told the Race Director we had pulled out, trying to justify our reasons for not carrying on. But we had done a solid bike, hike, bike, kayak, abseil and kayak, and 13 hours is still a pretty good effort. Maybe we got a bit ahead of ourselves; we trained for a whole year for Coast to Coast, which I believe was about the same level of difficulty, compared to this, where we decided less-than two weeks ago to enter.

Maybe the 12-hour option would have been a better choice, but a challenge is always good and we had an absolute blast. Next time I’m going to make sure I got in more hours of sleep before starting!

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