Flashback to the World Champs

By Rohan Kilham 5 March 2012
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Team Australian Geographic Adventure relive the pain and excitement of the 2011 XPD World Champs in Tassie.

AS I COLLAPSE INTO an old, sagging lounge chair at Port Villa’s International Airport, I feel a long way from Tasmania. Sweat slides off my back and stale body odours fill my nostrils; my Suunto registers 32º and the humidity must be close to 90 per cent. Just two weeks ago I was paying for it in the hurt locker – my legs burning, my body frozen and bleeding, and my mind wandering a sleepless landscape as I tried to get us to the next checkpoint. The Adventure Racing World Championship (ARWC) had been anything but a tropical holiday.

On 3 November 80 teams of four, from 23 countries around the world, lined up on a beach on the edge of Burnie, Tasmania. The ultimate prize in adventure racing lay at the end of 750km of gruelling terrain and sleepless nights: the World Championship title. My three companions – Sean, Sean and Kim – and I pitted ourselves against the smartest, strongest, fastest and fittest racers on earth.  To say we felt diminutive is an understatement.

The race was run by Geocentric – a commercial outfit who specialise in adventure races. Every year they run Geoquest, which is touted as Australia’s premier adventure race. And every 18 months Geocentric run XPD, a non-stop adventure race over 10 days. It is the undisputed test of toughness in Australian racing – there is nothing like it. Even by international standards, XPD is longer than most other expedition races by at least three days. This year XPD was run as the World Championship race. Seeing as this was the first time the World Championships had been held in Australia, and it was being run on the biggest field ever seen in the World Series, Craig Bycroft and Louise Foulkes (Geocentric owners and directors) were out to impress.

Adventure race hurdles

The first leg was simple: 17km of open-water paddling. But when you’re in inflatable boats, there is no such thing as simple. Winds and currents sought to send us backwards, sideways and any which way but forwards.  Sean and I were putting 20 paddle strokes on the starboard side for every one stroke on the port side. I could see one team yelling and screaming at the winds in frustration – nerves frayed after only a few hours. We cruised in to the transition area at a modest 67th place. Improvement was necessary.

A 20km trek over the Dial Ranges was next. After passing a few teams on the hills, we arrived in 48th place at the next transition. After 20km of riding through Gunns plain, we had a brief stop at Gunns Plain Cave – a spectacular cave system filled with stalactites and shawl formations. After racing through the cave in search of several wet and awkwardly placed checkpoints, we were back on the bikes heading for Loyleta Peak. We were 24 hours into the race. Legs were beginning to tire, but the pain of grinding up relentless hills was beginning to recede as our bodies settled in for the long haul. 

A 60km trek was next. It’s funny that on paper a race can seem easily navigable. Hills look small, rivers look crossable and you can come up with an easy solution for every other obstacle. 35km in, the sleet and rain started. Hands lost feeling, head torches cut a pathetic swathe in the darkness and feet ached. Thanks to Sean, our navigational errors had been fairly inconsequential so far, but the terrain was tough and our progress was slowing. At last we rounded a corner and came to a forest; there was some respite as the winds were caught by the dense growth. The rain also seemed to slacken, and our faces, hands and legs began to thaw. After hours trudging up and down steep, unstable muddy paths we came to the uncomfortable section of the leg.

The hike in to the Reynolds Falls was more like a scramble up a mud cliff dotted with tree trunks. We were supposed to be abseiling the cliff a few metres to our right, but due to high water levels the drop site had been washed out and a near-vertical tangle of vines and stumps served as our alternate way down. At the bottom we were met by a haze of moisture hanging over cascades that fell into the darkness.  It was freezing and there seemed to be several ways out – all down small waterfalls. Confusion and dread collided to stop us in our tracks. We discussed the best route, muttered misgivings about the cold, and debated our options. We decided down and onward into the frigid waters was the only option, and I would go first.

As my body hit the water, I felt instant alarm. The cold took my breath away and the current sucked me towards a 5m drop over rocks. Clambering onto the rocks, I stretched out a trekking pole to help the others over. The risk of hypothermia was imminent, and escaping this parlous predicament was more urgent than ever. We swam, waded and scampered for hours through the canyon – our progress was as bitter as it was cold.

As dawn crept through the forest above us, and slid down the cliffs towards us, life returned to our battered and frozen bodies. After endless kilometres of cliffs and thick, arduous undergrowth, we eventually arrived at the next transition, no longer freezing and spirits lifting.

But minds were beginning to falter.  I tried to focus on what we had to do next, but my mind kept wandering back and forth, lost in a sleepless listlessness. I tried finding my helmet, but before too long I’d forgotten the task at hand and began looking for my paddle. Putting it in a pile of things I might need, I then went in search of my life jacket, only to find I was wearing it . . . backwards.  How could packing a few simple things be so hard? Eventually I pulled it together and we headed off. We paddled, portaged, trekked and suffered. As the day faded to dusk we pulled into the next transition. What should have taken us only a few hours had taken us a whole day.

At the next transition, 36 hours into the race, we rested. Mercifully, sleep came quickly. With only 4mm of foam between me and the wet ground, a helmet for a pillow and nothing for cover, I was in heaven. The next day was only two hours away. Leaving on bikes we headed for mid camp. 22 hours of mountain bike riding, with only 10 minutes to rest, hurt a lot. But as our minds were still functioning reasonably well after a few hours’ sleep, we were at least able to enjoy the scenery. We passed Montezuma falls, rode the rail trail, and as light fell, we pulled in to Strahan (mid camp).

The hot breakfast (for dinner) of bacon, sausages and beans was heaven. As much as we loved our hammer bars and dehydrated meals, taste fatigue meant that our food was beginning to lose its appeal, despite how desperately our bodies craved the calories. After four hours of sleep, we set off again in hot pursuit of the BMX bandits – a team we’d established an amicable rivalry with. After 20km of salty wind and beach, we entered the Henty dunes.

The dunes were a maze of sandy horizons and traps of vegetation. Setting off confidently we soon lost ourselves in kilometres of rolling, hot sand. We followed footprints for hours, walking in dazed circles. Had we been here before?  Were those our footprints? Maybe it was that next patch of shrubs just 500m away. The day ticked by as we wandered in a daze, eventually stumbling on our checkpoints when all seemed lost.

The end is near

The remainder of the trek passed in a bleary, sleep-deprived haze of pain. Sean had to cut part of his shoes off so that his swollen feet didn’t lose circulation, and everyone’s lips swelled and cracked, while blisters started to appear on sodden feet. As we stumbled in to Granville harbour the silence enveloped us. We were all in a world of pain and exhaustion. During the last 8km to the transition, Kim fell asleep several times and stumbled drunkenly while trying to push herself forward. The two Seans – the undisputed “tough two” of the race – hobbled silently, sometimes letting out a wince or grimace, and occasionally following in Kim’s lead and stumbling sideways, literally asleep on their feet. We found ourselves half resigned to a life of pain, and deliriously anticipating the next leg. The next 30 hours on the bike was not appealing after a day of non-stop limping on bloodied, swollen feet.

The problem was that when the next leg came, a 31-hour mountain bike ride, the elation of having survived the previous leg was only fleeting. As we pushed on through mud and deadfall, the same feelings resurfaced – we were in a fog of endless suffering and we were yearning for the next leg. We pushed forward metre by painful metre, our legs seeping more and more blood from leeches, blisters and scratches.

When we launched onto the Arthur River to paddle through the Tarkine wilderness, we finally got what we were after – in spades.  87km of rapids that ran through untouched wilderness couldn’t have been more bittersweet. Arms and backs ached and hands blistered, while bruised feet and legs rested. The rapids pushed us down towards the end. Despite a few hairy swims, we progressed at a good speed. As night caught us we pulled ashore and set up camp. There was an imposed dark zone on this stretch of river, and the sleep that went with it was pure bliss.

Spooning three other sweaty, bleeding and smelly people who haven’t washed in six days, in a two-person tent isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But being horizontal was all that mattered; exhaustion would take care of the rest. Before I’d pulled my shoes of all three were asleep. The niggling thought of what lay ahead tomorrow only kept me awake for 10 more seconds. We slept for six hours. It was the most sleep we had had since starting.

In the push to the end (Burnie) we paddled, rode, and hiked another 24 hours without stopping. We could barely walk because of the bruising and maceration of our feet, and we fell asleep while riding and walking. Our diet had been reduced to perpetuem solids – a soapy mix of carbs and electrolytes. For some reason, when a muesli bar, sports drink, cheese or tuna made us gag, these chalky little balls were all that kept the calorie count going up toward the 6000 mark that we each needed daily – they were all we could easily stomach.

The finish line came in a 35km blur. Neck and neck with team Mawson, we sprinted to the end. And after racing for eight days we were beaten by a second. It was brilliant – the true essence of adventure racing. The end was a blissful relief; it was like being told your torture session was over. Subdued by sleep deprivation, and an inability to move, we sat in our chairs and ate whatever was handed to us; so long as the food was different to what we had been eating, it was delicious. I looked at a sleeping, dishevelled competitor who had collapsed on the floor of the conference room. People ignored the limp, shattered body – they knew how much he needed it. I wanted to do the same.

Looking back

Two days later I went to Vanuatu. I didn’t feel a shred of guilt that my three team mates had to work. For a week I slept for 18 hours a day, and ate more than 5000 calories per day (twice the recommended amount). Recovery was glorious.

Lying in my hammock I pondered the race. 30 teams failed to finish but I don’t think the race was too hard; maybe, only for those who were ill prepared or unlucky. Geocentric have pushed elitism in the sport and with good cause. This was the World Championship race – it should be hard. Nor do I think it was too dangerous. The standard demanded by this race was underestimated by some – that much is clear. But the record speaks for itself. Some people were rescued due to exhaustion, some were lost, some got sick and some broke bones. But nothing more serious than diarrhoea or a broken arm was recorded. The race was, in my mind, a marvellous success.

Everyone asks me if I’d do it again. I don’t think I can answer that. Probably? For now, the memories of frigid waterfalls, bruised feet and the agony of forcing a path through the Tasmanian undergrowth with a bike or boat are all too close to the surface. Though as time passes, the more I forget the pain of staying awake for 50 hours, the more I think . . . yeah, probably.