First thing I learned: don’t call it a triathlon. It’s multisport. And no offense, all you Ironmen out there–the Coast to Coast makes your race look pretty cushy.
Quick rehash: I went to New Zealand in part to witness this race up close by joining the crew of one of the competitors. I’m hatching a novel, set in New Zealand, in which this race plays an important role, and I needed to know what my characters are in for.
What I found out: I’m glad they’re the ones who have to do it, not me.
Here’s the race overview: a 2.2 kilometer run from the beach at Kumara Junction on the South Island’s west coast to the bikes. Then a 50k (31 mile) ride up into the mountains. Next, a 30k (20 mile) run through said mountains. A quick 15k (10 mile) bike ride down to the river is followed by a 70k (45 mile) kayak paddle. Finally, a 70k ride takes the athletes into Christchurch on the east coast.
Oh, is that all?
Most Coast-to-Coasters do the race in two days, or as part of a team, or both. The Longest Day competitors do it in…you guessed it: one LONG day. That’s what the athlete who invited me along was doing–Josie, 42, mum of two.
Josie and I had only communicated via email when I met her the night before the race at a BnB in Hokitika, along with her support crew: Pete, her dad, an orchardist, and Sarah, another multisport athlete from Queenstown. Josie was going over her gear, incredibly organized into separate bins labeled “Bike 1 to Run,” “Bike 2 to Paddle,” etc), and boiling potatoes. These she buttered, salted, and put into baggies for the different bins. Apparently potatoes were her carb of choice (even the other Kiwis thought this was odd), along with bananas and energy bars. (For the kayak portion, she mashed the bars into lumps and stuck them onto her boat like putty. Kiwi ingenuity.)
Over pizza, we got to know each other a bit, and I learned my assigned role–NOT, thank goodness, to be an assistant . Each athlete is only allowed two; these folks wore wristbands and carried very detailed instructions. Pete and Sarah played those roles, of course; my job was to take pictures with Josie’s phone. Great! (Except for the fact that I’m not familiar with smartphones and found myself tapping the wrong icon sometimes just at the wrong moment–no! No! I don’t want a selfie, damnit!)
Josie didn’t seem fussed about going to bed early, though she planned to be up at 3:45. I guess she didn’t sleep much anyway; too wired. We all shared one room with 4 separate beds, and all three of them seemed perfectly at ease with me and my odd reason for joining them. From what I’ve learned of New Zealanders, even if they thought it was strange, they wouldn’t have said so, even to each other. They are the least snarky, least judgmental nationality I’ve ever met.
At 4:45 next morning we left Josie to rack her bike up the road at Kumara Junction. She then walked the 2k back down to the start at the beach, while we drove ahead to the first Transition Area (TA) in the mountains. I commented on the relative calm of kayak-bedecked cars lined up along the road, and was told, “oh, this is nothing. You should have been here yesterday for the start of the 2-day and team events.” Apparently the Longest Day (which is the “Multisport World Championship”) only takes 150 competitors, but the 2-day takes 500. That must have been a zoo! But in the entire day I never saw a single race organizer missing from a spot where you’d want to see one, and I only saw one competitor lose his cool–and he was French. Even a guy who couldn’t find his support crew after his 70k paddle stint was just walking around, enquiring politely. I can’t see American athletes behaving so calmly.
Up in the mountains we assembled in a dark cow pasture, everyone headlamped. A local school was selling breakfast, and Pete shouted me to a whitebait patty sandwich (“sammie”; whitebait is a kind of tiny fish fried up whole). The wait was a bit chilly, but no one bitched. We were treated to the sight of sunshine working its way down the mountain peaks, but it still hadn’t reached us by the time Josie arrived, around 8, after a nice little 50k ride up the dark mountain road we’d just climbed. She was pumped; apparently on her first go 7 years ago (as part of a 2-day team) she’d taken a bike spill, so she was already enjoying herself “heaps” more.
The lead guy transitioned from bike to run in 3 seconds–I am not exaggerating. Still not sure how they managed that. Josie took a couple of minutes. From the start she’d made it clear she was not competing with the other 19 women in the field, but only hoping to come in as close to 15 hours as possible.
Off Josie ran, wearing her heavy pack (athletes are required to carry their own first aid kits, and then there was their nourishment for the 30k run.**) Water, at least, wasn’t an issue; everything there is drinkable so all they needed was a wee cup. One more reason multisport would be harder to pull off in the US.
**”run” in this case = scrambling over huge boulders, fording rivers, and finding one’s way through mostly un-tracked meadow and bush. I was told that about 10k of the way was simply “running” down river beds. Which is the #1 reason I would never be tempted by this race. What a risk to put your body in! How easy to screw up your whole career with one fall! But the athletes just shrug. No worries.
The next TA was in a sunny field next to one of the rivers they had to run. Lovely sun, pretty, dark beech trees.
We waited there around 5 hours, including an interval in which we drove the kayak down to the river TA, staged it there, then drove back to help Josie transition back to bike.
Watching the runners appear, it was obvious several had fallen. One woman had blood all over her face; with her pack and grim expression, she looked like a soldier. But, to quote Senator Mitchell, “nevertheless she persisted.”
But Josie? All smiles.
Why not just have them run straight to the kayaks? I guess maybe even the crazy Kiwis think 45k of boulder-running is a bit much. So we had the excitement of getting Josie on her bike, and then racing the 15k to reach the river before she did. Since this was a fairly level ride, high up in the mountain valley with snowy peaks around, we didn’t beat her by much.
Did I mention the day was perfect? Blue sky, even brighter blue braided river. NZ on its best behavior.
“I’m having such a great day!” Josie enthused as she ran down the gravel road from bike rack to river, Sarah feeding her potatoes and bananas as they ran.
Gearheads, take note of Josie’s ingenious “drink-tube pack” constructed of bite-tubes and duct tape. One tube attached to a container of electrolytes, one to some other energy-drink, and the third went directly into the river. (Sorry, US. No rivers that pure in the Lower 48.)
Despite the sunshine, we could feel a wind developing as the day progressed, and sure enough, those kayakers got it full in the face as they travelled out of sight down their secluded valley.
Major “Aha” from this experience: the river makes all the difference. That is, one’s ability to read the river. All the former athletes I talked to said so. The lead guy had 13 minutes on racer #2 at the end of the run; after 70k of kayaking it was down to 3, and then the second guy caught him on the last bike leg and won by 8 minutes. Totally counter-intuitive; I would have thought the run made the difference. Also very useful info, thematically, for the book I’m contemplating. The river, not the runner. Or river-running, not running. I’m mulling the implications.
The wait by the river was long, as I’ve mentioned, but here at last it felt a bit more like an Event, due to the presence of a PA system, complete with cheery announcer and rock n roll. The other TAs had had only the volunteers and the food concessions. I had another sammie and tried to stay out of the ozone-holey sun, and cheered on the 2-day kayakers, then the elite 1-dayers, as they appeared. Lots of little kids, lots of dogs, all loving that swimming-pool-blue water.
When they helped Josie out of her boat 5 hours later, she admitted to being “knackered.”
And then she jogged back up the bank, got on her bike, and rode the last 70k to Christchurch, into a headwind.
Did I mention this race is not for me?
Once game ol’ Jos was safely back on the bike for the final stage, we had no more jobs to do, and headed for Josie’s sister’s house for beers and an enormous pile of fish & chips (“fushenchups”). Between the 7 of us (Josie’s dad, sis, stepmum, half brother, brother in law, Sarah, and me), the heap of chips that was unwrapped from newsprint was roughly 20″ by 10″, and 4″ high.
Proud to say we didn’t finish them; we told ourselves the rest were for Josie, though I’m sure that’s the last thing she’d have wanted after finishing.
The finish line scene was what you’d expect: big video screen, more rock n roll and enthusiastic announcer calling out folks’ names as they sprinted or staggered to the finish arch. A giant full moon rose, orange, over the beach. Josie finished at 9:02, almost cracking the 15-hour mark! And totally stoked to discover she was 7th woman.
But that’s the thing this country’s culture–its understatedness. Of course there are fierce competitors; both the top two men and women battled it out to the finish. But nobody bragged or ragged. And the fact is, I got to sit in on the Coast to Coast, not the “Extreme Coast to Coast”–which you KNOW is what American race producers would call it.
The book I aim to write next is premised on that cultural difference, on the notion that you can have premier sport without premier ego. How un-American can you get?
Thanks to Josie, Sarah, Pete, and all those Coast to Coast athletes, supporters and organizers, when I’m ready to start writing, I’ll know a bit more whereof I write.
[And then there’s the GODZone…but even my fictional athlete isn’t that crazy.]