The Longest Day: New Zealand’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship, Up Close & Personal

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 & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

Josie & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

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.)

Sarah prepping Josie's paddling food

Sarah prepping Josie’s paddling food

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!)

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

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.

2nd Transition Area--nice and warm, finally!

2nd Transition Area–nice and warm, finally!

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.

Kayak gear prep

Kayak gear prep

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.”

Many rivers to cross...

Many rivers to cross…

But Josie? All smiles.

Here she comes!

Here she comes! (photo courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

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.

Not quite halfway through the race at this point...a mere 7 hours!

Not quite halfway through the race at this point…a mere 7 hours!

Did I mention the day was perfect? Blue sky, even brighter blue braided river. NZ on its best behavior.

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

 

“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.

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

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.)

Kiwi ingenuity again.

Kiwi ingenuity again.

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.

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery...

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery…

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.”

I'd be more than a bit "knackered" at this point.

I’d be more than a bit “knackered” at this point.

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.

THIS.

THIS.

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.

Now THAT's a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Now THAT’s a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

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.]

Lava Falls: Gateway Drug to Adrenaline Addiction

I’ve never thought of myself as an adrenaline junkie. Yes, I’ve climbed Mt. Rainier, but only because she is special to me; I’m not a “peak bagger.” Yes, I did once lie on my stomach in the empty streambed of Tuolome Creek and gaze down the 1,500-foot drop of the then-non-flowing Yosemite Falls, but only because I’m an idiot who is apparently missing the gene that warns humans not to go too close to the edges of things. (Ditto with looking into Mt. St. Helens’ crater from a snow ledge on the rim–a huge no-no.) And yes, I’ve been para-sailing, but only up to 400 feet, with a friend. Easy-peasy.

My point is, I did these things because I felt drawn to them, not because I wanted to make my heart pound. I don’t even think my heart DID pound that much (except for exertion–Mt. Rainier is quite a slog).

I used to be a competitive runner. I associated adrenaline rushes with the hours and moments before races–never a good time. Often as not, you want to throw up. So what’s so great about adrenaline?

But since running Lava Falls on the Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I’m afraid I’m beginning to understand.

Lava is the biggest, baddest rapid in Grand Canyon. On the 1-10 rating scale rafters use for that river, it’s a 10, or 10+, depending on the level of the river. Scary as hell. As you might guess, it’s formed by the remnants of a one-time dam of black lava that blocked the river. To the right and left, the river roils and boils with giant waves, but boats can make it through. But in the center is a full-on waterfall, which dumps into a trench the size of a mobile home. You don’t want to go down the center. Here is what can happen, courtesy of Yakbas, who posted this:

(This video must have been taken during the “monsoon season,” when flash flooding in the side canyons turns the river back to its original color–hence “Colorado.” On our trip, it was a nice sage-green.)

Luckily I hadn’t seen this video before going on this trip. I didn’t know that the rapid could spin a raft and all its occupants like laundry in a washing machine. I just knew Lava was bigger than any rapid I’d experienced, and I WANTED it. The way I wanted Mt. Rainier and Yosemite Falls.

So the day came: June 19. It happened to be our son’s 24th birthday, and he happened to be with us, paddling in the same boat. That felt perfect.

We broke camp earlier than usual, about 10 miles upriver. The guides seemed more subdued. Our trip leader took a good 20 minutes to talk us through the rapid, drawing diagrams in the sand. Off we paddled.

After an hour of the usual red canyon walls, the lava made its appearance. Then, in the middle of the river, Vulcan’s Anvil. I was too busy paddling to take a picture, so I’m borrowing this one:

(courtesy ralphandmaida.com)

(courtesy ralphandmaida.com)

Pretty damn ominous, right? Even more so close up. And then we heard the distant roar. All rapids roar, and some small ones are even pretty good at sounding louder than they are, thanks to canyon acoustics. Lava Falls was different. Deeper, louder, throatier. A beast around the bend.

Ten minutes later, we were tying up the boats to scout the rapid from above. I decided not to take a picture. Giant, boat-eating waves never look like much till you’re in them. But I did take a picture of the huge hole in Crystal Rapid, a hundred miles upriver, when we scouted it. So this’ll give you some idea.

BIG water. Lava's bigger.

BIG water. Lava’s bigger.

The guides double-checked everyone’s life jackets, repeating instructions about leaning toward the waves, and about keeping your feet pointed downriver if we did “swim.” As we swung back into the smooth current, my heartbeat started filling my ears. The beast roared louder. And there we were, paddling toward it. Voluntarily. I checked my facial muscles to make sure I was smiling. Yes.

At the cusp of the rapid, where the glassy green tongue of the river glides you straight into whitewater oblivion, I could not risk taking my eyes off the rapid. But had I been able to look down, I’m pretty sure I would have seen my life jacket moving up and down from the pounding of my heart.

We hit the first wave and the four people in the front of the boat disappeared behind a wall of water. When we resurfaced, we were missing the front guy, a large rugby player we’d stationed there on purpose. They say 20 seconds or less is a good run for Lava Falls; any more and you’re in deep trouble. We came through under 20, only adding a few at the end to rescue the rugby player, who was grinning at us from the crazy rapid he’d just “swum.” (I’m glad it wasn’t my son who went in; he would’ve been fine, but parental adrenaline is the WRONG sort.) Once our boat was intact again, in time to run “Son of Lava,” we woo-hooed and smacked paddles in celebration. Then we stopped for lunch and I spent some time thinking about what I’d just felt.

Nothing more exciting, ever, with my clothes on. Wow. Damn. I can see why that stuff’s addictive.

From a limestone edge just below the falls, I took pictures, zoomed in, of what we’d just run. Of course they fell flat. As does this description.

Not even close to capturing it.

Not even close to capturing it.

Understand: I am NOT encouraging this behavior, nor celebrating it as bravery. I’m still not entirely sure I like the way I gave in to that feeling and responded with joy instead of terror, which seems more appropriate. I guess some cliche about “feeling more alive than ever” applies here.

For the record, I can find other ways to feel alive than to make my heart pound like that. But man. I’m glad I know what it feels like. Or am I?  Anyone want to weigh in on this?

 

Girls Gone Wild-ly Paddling

I’m not here. I wrote this several days ago. I’m with my Girliepeeps.

How many of you over-20 folks get together with old friends on a regular basis? If you don’t, I’m here to tell you: it’s never too late to start.

My three best friends and I graduated from high school in 1979, ’80, and ’81. We went to college–off and on, some of us–staying in vague touch here and here. We went to a couple of each other’s weddings (only 2 of us 4 had them).

Then we lost touch, pretty much. For 15 years.

In 2002, I commented to my Mate that a friend of mine had annual get-togethers with her childhood friends. Another did the same with friends from college.

“You could do that,” he said.

“Yeah, right. We’re way too scattered. North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Washington–where would we all meet? It’d be way too expensive.”

“But worth it,” he said.

I love my husband. He values family and friendship above anything. Is it expensive for us to fly once a year for “nothing more” than 3-4 days catching up with each other? Yes. It’s also priceless.

Reunion #1, Michigan, 2002: we spent 48 solid hours talking, with short breaks for sleep. We all got sore throats.

Massachusetts, 2003 (where one of us has a sister with a home we could borrow): We kayaked on the Deer River, establishing a  tradition of paddling which we’ve stuck with every year since. (OK, that one river in Georgia was too low for paddling, so we tubed…but close enough.)

Rivers, oceans, we're not picky--just give us paddles. And picnic lunch.

Rivers, oceans, we’re not picky–just give us paddles. And picnic lunch.

Washington, 2007: one of us brought recipes she wanted to share, establishing another tradition: cooking for each other. Champagne peach soup, anyone? Sweet  potato gnocchi?

Georgia, 2009: the host gave everyone little tea infusers, establishing the custom of host-gifting. (I already have my idea for next year, but it’s a secret.)

We’ve developed a few other traditions along the way. We try to have one evening with the spouse/partner/family of the host. We try to do something cultural: poetry reading, kangaroo rescue center (no, I am not making that up).

Seriously--a kangaroo sanctuary in north Georgia!

Seriously–a kangaroo sanctuary in north Georgia!

Who knows what new tradition is developing RIGHT NOW, as you are reading this and I am with my girliepeeps on the North Carolina coast?

I’ll get back to you on that.

So, reunions, anybody? Do you have them? With family, or with friends? How often? What are your traditions?