Inside scoop from XPD World Championships

By Pat Kinsella 23 December 2011
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Seagate captain Nathan Fa’avae reveals how it feels to lose grip of a world title.

AFTER LEADING THE XPD in Tasmania – one of the most brutal adventure races the planet has seen all year – for over 700km, Team Seagate from New Zealand were forced to drop anchor just 35km short of the finish line and watch as two teams passed them to take first and second place. They’d been hit with a four-hour penalty for leaving their SPOT device behind on the shortest leg of the multi-day race, a 20km trail run. Worse still, this was the World Championships. Here, Pat Kinsella gets the low-down direct from Team Seagate captain, Nathan Fa’avae.

PK: I was impressed at how high you kept your heads when I saw you at the transition from the last paddle, and you knew that – bar something very unexpected happening – you’d lost the race. How are you feeling now?

NF: I’m disappointed about the race – mainly disappointed with ourselves. We made too many errors: leaving the SPOT, bike problems and some route choice options that cost us.

PK: Craig Bycroft, XPD race director, says the four-hour penalty was stipulated before the race, and points out that at next year’s World Championships in France, a mistake such as leaving your SPOT behind will result in disqualification – in your mind, was the race jury too harsh?

NF: It was over the top in my view. They had the right to use discretion but opted to be hard and fast on the rules. I don’t think the sport of adventure racing really fits with policy and penalties. XPD pride themselves on being more of an expedition than a race, and I felt they let themselves down on this one – on expeditions the penalties are of natural consequence. We had enough penalties just racing on the course!

PK: To be fair, it was a definite breach of rules and the race jury would have been criticised if they’d let it go – what penalty should you have been hit with?

NF: A SPOT unit weighs 120g, not much more than a food bar. The penalty needed to reflect any advantage we stood to gain for not carrying it on section 2, a 20km trail run. I think 30-60 minutes would be plenty. It’s enough to remind teams to take the gear asked but not cut them out of the race. The front teams do need some slack cut, to protect the spectacle of the sport. All teams break rules on course, nothing intentional or with malice, it’s just racing and it’s not a problem. I know 100% that both Silva and Thule broke race rules but they are trivial things that don’t matter – the 100m rule for example, and having an external person giving them info during the race in one case – but don’t care about either.
The AR World series has to be very careful the UK folks don’t infiltrate the admin too much, they have a passion for rules and regulations and risk ruining the sport. I like how in a good game of rugby, the referee can choose to call ‘play on’, for the sake of the game, even though rules have been broken. It’s not good for AR if the rules are enforced 100 per cent in black-and-white; they need to be considered within the context of the situation and the intent of the team.

PK: How do you feel about the way your fellow competitors dealt with the situation?

NF: I was disappointed with those teams in the manner they dealt with the penalty and passing us. There was nothing humble or respectful about the situation. The way I see it, we led the race for 700km, and despite all the problems we were having, it took the penalty box 35km from the end for those teams to finally get past us. Given the morals and integrity I race with, I would have acknowledged this, but they chose to deny it and instead made comments that suggested the penalty had nothing to do with the outcome. That hurt our egos!
I understand that they don’t want their performances to be seen as hollow or circumstantial; it doesn’t help that a common view is that we lost the race, as opposed to them winning it. I feel for them in that aspect but believe they could have elevated their performance by acknowledging the fact they were a bit lucky that we were stopped.

PK: What would you have done in their shoes?

NF: Personally, I wouldn’t have passed a team like that. I would have waited until their penalty was up and raced them to the end from there. We did that in Primal Quest 2004 and it felt great. I had an interesting e-conversation with Michael Tobin in the US after the race – one of the greats in AR, a true sportsman who I hold in high esteem. He pointed out that Kiwi teams always have a strong sense of fair play and compassion. We once drew with Michael’s team, Nike ACG, in a race we could have won, but didn’t deserve to. It cost us US$50,000.*

PK: Disappointment aside, what did you think of the race?

NF: The course I thought was excellent. Craig did well allowing some real risk into the race and including some good navigation challenges. That was valued. The event was very well run, no doubt about it. Some sections I didn’t like. I hate hiking a MTB, I’d never put hike-a-bike in a race – never! I also didn’t like how we had to put four people in a three-person kayak.

PK: What have you taken away from the race?

NF: All things said and done, we did our best, but we didn’t win the World Championships because we didn’t race like a World Championship team. But we have learned lessons, we have some extra motivation, and we’re keen to get racing again. Perhaps the best acceptance reminder for me getting over the XPD penalty was when my older brother picked me up from the airport. He wound the window down and said: “Well, aren’t you a f*%ing c*ck!”

*At the 2004 Primal Quest in San Juan Islands, USA, Australian adventure racer Nigel Aylott was killed by a falling boulder while his team AROC was leading the race with Team Montrail. Seagate, who were two hours behind Nike ACG at the time of the accident but who passed them after the restart, held back so the teams could cross the line together as joint winners. It was both a mark of respect for Nigel Aylott and a nod to fair play. 

Check out the Jan/Feb ’12 edition of Australian Geographic Outdoor  (on sale now) for Pat’s full story about the thrills, spills, agony and ecstasy that characterised the Adventure Racing World Championships, which took place in Tasmania last month.