Racing with a Unicorn
Kathmandu Coast to Coast 2019
Crunch! I feel sick. I glance over at my boyfriend Brad sitting in the driver's seat, a look of horror on his face. Grabbing the door handle, I fall out of the car, quickly standing to look at the roof. Yes, that was Pauline, Anna's bike, hitting the top of the carport. Phew, it's still intact. I look back in the car, two sets of eyes praying for a positive answer. "I think it's OK, you only hit the gutter", I say. Brad looks like he could burst into tears. I burst out laughing… crikey, that was close!
Registration, followed by a media panel (the bonus of racing with a celebrity), had gone smoothly at Kumara Racecourse earlier that afternoon. We’d met half of our support crew there with the rest meeting us at our cute Airbnb in Hokitika. In total, we made up a mighty team of 11.
The following few hours involved sorting gear, labelling gear, wondering what the heck four wristbands were for (turns out two for support crew), uploading social media content to Kathmandu’s Instagram account (takes much longer than you think), charging batteries, sorting GoPro’s, packing food, eating dinner … and finally, going to bed.
I had created a five-page run sheet for our support crew with every detail covered, which garnered a lot of grief in my direction, but also avoided a lot of unnecessary questions. I highly recommend it. Trust me, support crew have many questions. As we brushed our teeth and headed to bed, we were only 15 minutes behind schedule.
This being my third Coast to Coast, I’m not going to say I’m an old hand, but I was confident I knew how it ran and where and when I needed to be. The road closed at 6:30am, with the Tandem 2-Day and teams not starting until 7:15am. As we left Hokitika at 6am with a coffee in hand, things were going smoothly. Passing many athletes on the road just after the turnoff to the beach, we pulled in behind a line of traffic, before quickly coming to a halt. Mild unease soon turned into full-blown panic when a competitor approached our window, informing us the road was already closed. Sh*t. Three out of four of our support cars were in this queue. Brad, not the best under pressure, had a look of horror for the second time in 12 hours. Action needed to be taken, so Anna and I jumped out, pulled our bikes off the back and started cycling to TA1. Just as we took off, the line of cars began to move, with Brad moving at the same pace as us, before carrying on the open road to Aickens Corner as we turned in to rack our bikes.
Jogging down the road to the start line, Anna declared she had wondered how we were going to warm up! We both used the port-a-loo, which I gave a highly commendably 8/10 both for cleanliness and the fact there was no waiting in a line, before cruising the final stretch to the beach. As we shimmied our way under the start line, still with five minutes before the individual competitors began, I smiled internally. “Stick to your plan, Woodhouse.”
“3, 2, 1…” Juddy’s iconic voice boomed into the megaphone. Scrambling up rocks, along the gravel 4WD track then up the hill, I was hot on Anna’s heels. Settling into a steady rhythm, we covered the two-and-a-bit kilometres to our bikes without a glitch. A smooth transition and before we knew it, our tyres were clicking along the tarmac towards Aickens Corner.
I'm not a cyclist, in fact, I'm ashamed to tell you how little time I spent on my bike training for this race (a broken hand didn’t help), but there is something about the first 55-kilometre bike leg that I just love. We managed to find ourselves in a good bunch and cranked along at a solid pace as the sun peeked through the mist in the valley around us.
“Woodhouse, my chain’s buggered!” Anna yelled from behind me. My heart sank. Moving to the side then squeezing my brakes, sadly watching our bunch leave us behind, I ran back to Anna. Pauline, her beloved blue baby, was having a mare. Frantically tugging at the chain, I quickly realised this was not a simple fix. What the heck was going on here?? It was well and truly jammed, and no matter how much yanking we did, there was no way this chain was going to budge.
As Anna reached for her allen key, the Avanti bike van pulled in behind us. “Oh, you’re the girl with pink hair,” the two guys declared. If I had a dollar for how many times I heard that over the next two days! No time for chit-chat, however, and before we knew it (or maybe it felt like a lifetime) the derailleur was moved and the chain put back on. Sadly though, no more big ring for McNuff. Pauline required two more stops as we made our way alone to the end of the cycle leg, before pulling in to the much-welcomed sight of parents and support crew.
“Anna needs food,” I declared to Jacqs as we swapped bike shoes for sneakers and stuffed salt tabs into our mouths. Even with our unintended stops, I smiled at Mum and Brad, “I just love this race,” I declared. Visor on, backpack on and banana in hand, we high-fived our way down the chute and started the biggest section of Day One, the infamous mountain run.
The next three hours up Goat’s Pass were tough on Anna, who was seriously low on energy levels. It was at this moment I realised you can’t underestimate the advantage that experience has in this race. As we walked over the rocky ground, Anna quietly informed me she was sorry. “We’re a team McNuff, there will be no more ‘sorry’ during this race,” I said back. But I’ve been there, I knew exactly how she was feeling, and it’s so tough. But you have to keep moving, and that’s what we did all the way to the top.
“I’m back,” the princess declared as we stuffed water-logged cheese and marmite sandwiches into our mouths, having passed through the compulsory checkpoint at Goat’s Pass Hut. “Thank goodness,” I reply with relief. “I thought I’d lost you there for a minute!”
With energy levels almost back to normal, we snaked our way down the boardwalks and into the beech forest below. A few sneaky shortcuts had us overtaking groups at crucial times, ticking off landmarks along the way. Little hut, steep section down, steep section up, boardwalks, magic carpet and then the most significant milestone, Dudley's Knob. Cue the knob dance at the top, before I yelled, "Right, let's finish this race!"
Running over rocks is a skill that comes only from experience, and for Anna, this was foreign. But like the trooper she is, she never gave up. "Keep it up Anna," I'd yell when I'm sure all she wanted to do was punch me in the face. But I felt if I didn't say anything, I wasn't supporting her enough.
With the finish line in sight, we headed under the railway bridge with only a kilometre to go. One foot in front of the other, the bank with supporters came into view, and as we ran hand-in-hand down the finish chute, I pumped the air with delight – what a day!
A crying baby, a louder-than-usual rubbish truck and a snoring boyfriend wasn’t enough to dampen my excitement as I woke early on Day 2. Jumping in Say Yes (Mum and Dad’s campervan) Anna and I stole another hour of kip before forcing coffee and muesli down our throats.
“I’m going to change my timing chip to the other ankle” Anna declared, “because anything’s got to be better than yesterday.” It sounded like the perfect plan for extra luck, so I did the same.
“3, 2, 1…” and just like that, Day 2 started. In a bunch of 20, we quickly got into a rhythm once again, heading for Mt White bridge. Every time I heard Anna change gear, I closed my eyes and prayed. “C’mon Pauline, you can do this!” And that she did. With about five kilometres to go Anna made a move off the front of the bunch and quickly we found ourselves on our own.
“Yeeoooooow” we both squealed as we bombed our way down the steep road sections, before climbing up one last hill to the transition area. I’d opted for sneakers and flat pedals, Anna had her kayak booties in her back pockets on her top, resulting in a fast transition before running with our bikes down the gravel road. Pauline didn’t enjoy the uneven ground, so a quick stop was required to refit her chain before spotting our support crew at the bottom.
Bib off, sneakers off, booties on, spray deck on, PFD on, Bib back on, a tonne of sunscreen sprayed all over us (thanks Jacqs) and into our boat we jumped. A quick check to make sure the rudder was working and not locked in, a gentle push from our team and away we went, 70 glorious kilometres of the Waimakariri river ahead of us. “Bad move Woodhouse”, I thought as the sun reflected off the water, piercing my eyes. I’d said no to sunglasses twice, so I had no one to blame but myself.
Like an intense game of dodgems, we bumped and grinded our way over the first section of the river. A super low flow meant skinny lines, lots of boats floating backwards and many well-timed bum shuffles to get us over the river gravel beneath our boat. While a double means we do sit a bit lower in the water, it does have its advantages, such as one person being able to eat and drink with the other still paddled.
Anna had only been down once before, and on that day the river was super high, running over 100 cumecs. Today it was the lowest I had ever experienced it, running about 40 cumecs. Add a bunch of novices with gnarly corners, and the result is, without a doubt, carnage. From the first corner in the gorge to the last, people were swimming everywhere. How we stayed upright, I'll never know. Call it good balance, good hip movement, or the fact we had our timing chips on different ankles, whatever it was, the river gods were on our side.
Being slightly smaller humans than most (while McNuff might be tall, she's got a small waist) our spray decks, unfortunately, didn't fit snugly around our middles. Mine even caved inwards, resulting in an influx of the river each time we hit a wave train (and there were many). As we passed the big red train bridge, water was sloshing at the back of my knees. Cue what I like to call a ‘tactical time-out’. A sharp right-hand turn, a terrible line and next minute, we’re upside down. Three attempts to pull the spray deck and up I popped, spluttering as I grasped what had just happened.
“You alright, Woodhouse?” Anna’s comforting voice filled my ears.
“Yeah, I'm good thanks, you?" I replied.
“It’s not that deep, you can stand up,” Anna tells me with relief. As I stretch my legs out straight, I make no contact with the river bed, once again reminded of the joys as a short-ass.
But if there is such a thing as the perfect river dunk, we nailed it. Pulling Bertha our boat quickly to the side, we tipped out the water, stretched the hips that were only a few more corners away from severe cramp, and hopped back in. Considerably lighter, we pushed off from the bank, having had a much-welcomed reset.
Woodstock, right chute, left of the rock, square hedgerow and finally the power lines, the last hour ticks by quickly. Our bodies on autopilot, we belt out Lady Gaga’s ‘Shallow’ inserting our own words when required, finally letting the relief set in knowing there were only a few corners and a bridge left to go.
"Tandems to the left," yells the race official as we power into the shore, support crew eagerly awaiting our beaming faces. We awaken the legs and stumble our way up the beach, "Go, Anna, Go Hollie" ringing in our ears. Buzzing, I find a burst of energy to run up the hill to our bikes. A smorgasbord of every type of race fuel awaits us, trading stories with our support crew who have been patiently waiting for hours for us to show up.
I scull the best part of a can of Red Bull, followed by a mouthful of salty chips, a combination of the body craving sugar and salt along with the knowledge that I’ll be needing every ounce of energy I can muster to get me the remaining 70 kilometres home.
Back on the bike for the final time, we once again settle into a rhythm teaming up with one other as we head towards New Brighton. “Are they your support crew?” he asks, as we play cat and mouse with a truck, aware that technically you aren’t allowed vehicles down South Eyre road. “No,” I sheepishly reply, “they’re the media.”
“Are you guys famous?” he replies, perplexed. I let Anna answer this one, feeling way out of my depth – as if anyone would call me famous! I realise McNuff’s helmet has hidden her iconic pink hair.
“We’re ambassadors for Kathmandu, with the aim to encourage everyday people to give this event ago,” she tells him. My heart does a little flip.
Soon our happy threesome becomes a small group of 10, then 20 as we catch a bunch ahead. With some men on the front, Anna and I are only too happy to sit near the back and be pulled along for the ride. There is something about two females riding together that must intimidate men, as they always opted to jump back in the group just ahead of us. I’m all for contributing but there were no complaints here.
The bunch surges as we turn to head over the Old North Road bridge, dropping us off the back. I’m OK with this as we’ve had a fabulous ride to here. Picking up other stragglers who have also dropped off the bunch, we power our way into the outskirts of town.
“Sharp left-hand turn ahead” I inform McNuff, who has absolutely no idea where she is or how far to go. “We’re almost there!” I yell as we hit North New Brighton beach and after making our final turn, we put the hammer down and power the last kilometre home.
"Go, Hollie, go, Anna, go, girls," some of our support crew scream and wave as we whizz
by, our faces beaming as the finish-line adrenalin sets in. Don't forget to unclip, I tell myself, remembering my ugly dismount from the last time I found myself back in this same place.
The legs appear to work better than I thought and quickly we make our way down the final chute and up the brutal sand-covered steps to the finish line. I turn to Anna and give her a massive squeeze. I am so proud of her. We’ve done it. I’ve done. For the third time, I’ve successfully gone from west to east under my own steam.
After a tough first day, we nailed the second. While I have this race on my doorstep, for Anna, she’s biked, kayaked and scrambled her way over foreign ground, having done 90% of her training during the horrible London winter. I couldn’t have done it without her, she couldn’t have done it without me. And that is the beauty of teamwork.