"Ri Ri, get back!!" The words explode in my eardrums, the excitement and urgency clearly expressed as we hurtle east along the wrong side of the road. Dean, leaning as far as possible out the window of our Apollo Campervan, yells encouragement as the cyclists zoom along beside us. The sun sneaks through the last of the mist lingering in the valley as we head for Aicken's Corner, the first major transition of the iconic Kathmandu Coast to Coast multisport race.
The two boys Dean is yelling at are well known to many, especially those with a love for Bondi beach. "Reidy" aka Andy Reid and "Whippet" aka Ryan Clark are stars from the television show Bondi Rescue. Both natural sportsmen, they crossed the ditch to test themselves against New Zealand's best multisport athletes. While Reidy is no stranger to multisport events, this was Whippet's first attempt at combining disciplines off-road, something he probably now wishes he put a bit more effort into.
A phone call a few weeks earlier with Race Director Glen Currie had landed me a role with a vague title, something along the lines of, "They have no idea what they're doing and need someone to help them throughout the event." Having been involved in this event many times before, and not wanting to miss out, this was perfect. "I'm in!" I replied.
As Aussie as you can get, Dean (aka Di Di) joined us as support crew with Rich, Shane and Bali rounding out the team, who were all there to capture footage of the boys as they raced, for a special episode for Bondi Rescue. Meeting for the first time at Christchurch City Helicopters, they were treated to an afternoon flight over the course on which they would be racing in a few days, flown by none other than legendary Richie McCaw. As tall stories were shared about how good (or bad) they once were at the 15-man game, I immediately knew that if nothing else, these next few days were going to be a bundle of laughs.
Bad weather and cancelled flights meant an early start on Thursday morning to get to the Mt White Bridge so they could tick off their Grade 2 certificates with Topsport Kayaking. Nothing like the last minute! But having grown up in the water, both boys loved their first taste of the mighty Waimakariri, sensing they were going to be more than OK over the next few days.
I have, and always will love this part of the world, but there is something special in watching others see it for the first time. "Wow" was repeated many times, and I couldn't agree more. With a storm rolling down the valley, the blue of the braided rivers sitting in stark contrast to the golden landscape, the beauty of the South Island's Southern Alps is second to none.
Cutting it fine, we made our way to race registration at Greymouth followed by a media panel and dinner at the Monteith's Bar in town. The local campground, situated right on the beach, was home for the night as we ate pizzas in the dark and went over the last of the logistics for the day ahead. Effects of a nor'wester a few days earlier meant the run course had changed to Plan B - instead of running up and over Goat Pass, it was now a mixture of road and trail up and over the viaduct. With no one knowing the original course apart from me, we are all quietly optimistic the footage would be just as compelling as the clamber through the pass.
Two campervans meant we split to get as much footage as possible, with Rich driving one and me the other. I quickly learnt it's a fine line between getting the 'shot' and keeping out of the way of competitors. From someone who has been on both sides, I understand it's tricky, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do, even if it results in a driving complaint! It didn't help that campervans aren't the smallest of vehicles, but it did make me feel slightly better to hear that George Berry (head honcho of media) also didn't come away with a clean record.
As always in this race, the first transition from run to bike goes by in a blur and quickly we were powering up the road to locate the boys from Bondi. They were in a good bunch, taking turns at the front and offering plenty of banter out the window of the van. Reidy's main concern was how far behind Richie he was; such is the trans-Tasman rivalry in any code. It turns out they had a bit more speed than the Aussies, and wouldn't be spotted again until the finish line at Klondyke Corner.
Support crew is stressful at the best of times, not to mention the addition of media, but Dean and I managed to find a good spot on the edge of the run chute, and soon enough the boys appeared off their bikes. A seamless albeit hilarious transition ensued, and in no time they were off and running, heading towards the river. We were all in no man's land now, having no real idea of the course, so Dean and I left the camera boys to follow them in the other campervan and headed to a lookout spot three-quarters of the way up the viaduct.
Slowly people passed us; some running, some power walking, some cursing. OK, so most were cursing, mainly at the traffic fumes as the road was still open to all vehicles, not to mention the 12 degree gradient! But almost everyone was smiling. And why wouldn't you be - most people had been training for the previous year for this race, and finally, they were out there doing it.
In a common theme for the weekend, we heard them before we saw them; mostly Reidy, who was looking super strong, but Whippet managed to crack the odd joke too, along with declaring that he is going to do some training before he comes back next year! With the cameras shoved in their faces, they were fully aware that while they were racing this event, it's also their job, and walking uphill while doing an interview is just par for the course.
Five hours and 43 minutes later 'Test Eagles' (sadly not said aloud by the commentators) ran across the finish line to sit in 5th place overall in the Men's Tandem Open category. After a tough start, they had a strong finish and managed to claw back some time on Richie and Rob, and the first question they asked once they got their breath back was how far behind them they were!
Food, hydration, a painful-but-much-needed massage, sorting of the kayak and a compulsory swim (support crew included) in the Bealey River filled in the remainder of the warm afternoon. More interviews, dinner and a final check of their gear as the sun set behind the mountains around us, ended what turned out to be a mostly seamless Day 1 of the Kathmandu Coast to Coast.
"I'm in the lead!" Whippet excitedly declared as he sped past me, his 30 seconds of glory at the front of the pack. They were in the first bunch of tandem teams leaving Klondyke Corner as they headed for the Mt White bridge and the major section of the day - the kayak. Shane and I jumped in the campervan and did our best to catch them, but the combination of competitors, roadworks and vehicles made it a difficult task. The goody-good in me hates being told off, so the toots and glares from those around us made me shrink inside my skin. Not to mention the angry volunteers that greeted us at the top of the hill!
Shane managed to shoot off just in time and caught the boys as they ran their bikes down the gravel road and over the bridge to the river. Unbeknown to us, Dean had a chaotic morning managing to get their kayak and gear checked off just in the nick of time. Thankfully he found a woman with two girls who are mad keen on the Bondi boys and only too happy to help!! As he relayed the series of events to me later when we caught up in Springfield for a much-needed coffee, I doubled over in hysterics. I don't know what was more amusing - the close call itself or listening to the story in one of the strongest Aussie accents I've ever heard!
I dropped Shane off near the river to jump in a jet boat and located the boys as they made their way down the gorge. While the weather was perfect, it doesn't take long for the easterly to roll its way up the valley, turning ideal paddling conditions into hypothermic for those not adequately prepared. Once again highlighting that compulsory gear is there for a reason and to never take Mother Nature for granted.
I sat on the bank and watched kayak after kayak tip upside down on the Woodstock corner, relieved that that was not me this year having to battle the boils and currents! The boys cruised by, looking super calm and in control as if they have been paddling rivers for years. Whippet was steering in the front, although banter later revealed Reidy took matters into his own hands a few too many times and tried to take control from the back!
Twenty minutes later Shane appeared on the jetboat, and we made a mad dash for the campervan to catch them for the final transition. Having no idea whether they had come in our not, we pulled into a parking area just beside the bridge (again having to convince officials we were allowed there!) and jumped out. Shane headed for the transition area, while I ran the gravel road to the bottom, managing to catch them just as they ran up the chute. By a massive stroke of luck (or brilliant management), we timed it perfectly and followed them up to their bikes. By the time they got out on the road and over the bridge, the rain was coming in sideways, not ideal, but when you've only got one stage left to go, it's more than manageable!
With 70km to go, the never-ending straight of South Eyre Road offered many opportunities for us to follow the boys, getting good footage as they zoomed along, slowly picking off competitors as they made their way to New Brighton. The enormity of this race both mentally and physically was starting to show and with less than 30 kilometres to go we left the boys and headed for Christchurch to ensure we didn't miss the finish line glory!
I always think the cruellest part of the entire race is the sandy steps up to the finish line, and for almost everyone, they are running in their cycling shoes. It's not long before I heard "the Boys from Bondi" being called over the loudspeaker as they dismounted their bikes for the last time. Running past, their smiles said it all. No matter what your skill level or experience, if it's your first time or if you're a legend of the race, there's something special about that finish line feeling. Hugs, high-fives and elation followed as the boys realised they had successfully biked, run and kayaked 235km from one side of the South Island to the other.
As we regrouped and headed to the water for the customary touching of the Tasman Sea and throwing of the stone collected from the start line, there was already chat about next year's event. Both are planning on coming back to knock off the 1-Day - the ultimate in bragging rights for this iconic event. As always, I felt a twinge of jealousy, maybe I could line up on the start line again??
The Kathmandu Coast to Coast is an event like no other, whether you are a competitor, support crew member or spectator - the buzz and hype is second-to-none. In one way or another, I have no doubt I'll be back in some capacity next year!
From meeting for the first time four days earlier to sharing many laughs and special memories with these six crazy Aussies, I loved every minute. Thank you for letting me be a part of those amazing few days. Bring on next year! Not too sure who my money is on, but I can't wait for the Whippet vs Reidy battle!