Sympathy For The Devil

Over five gruelling days, rookie adventure racer Bruce Newton ran, biked, paddled and swam the 350km Mark Webber Challenge, which raises funds to save the endangered Tasmanian Devil and support other great causes. Worth doing? Hell, yeah.

My heart is thumping; my legs are lead; sweat is stinging my eyes. Yep, five minutes into the Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge and I’m stuffed. Only five days and 350km to go!

Around me, other competitors, to a man (and one woman) lean and chiselled, are dashing with purpose, while I blindly follow my team-mate, Pat Kinsella, desperately trying to get body and mind back under control.

But just three hours later — my initial adrenaline dump and panic subsided — after a wonderful paddle across Coles Bay and a mountain bike rollercoaster ride along the east coast of the Freycinet National Park, life could not be better. This adventure-racing business isn’t so hard after all.

Yeah, right. An hour later, I’m once more a broken man. The climb up the steep granite slopes of Mount Amos under a burning sun has me rasping and ragged, barely able to put one foot after the after. My first-ever abseil 50 metres back down a sheer wall is a relief, if only for the temporary end of pain. So slippery is much of the rest of the descent that I’ve torn the arse out of brand new 2XU tri-shorts by the time we get back to transition.

The thought of even attempting the optional 11km return run to Wineglass Bay is enough to make me laugh — if I had the energy. That’s being conserved for the kayak and run legs  to come. My God, I signed up for this voluntarily?

But back in August 2011, it was easy to rationalise “Just how hard could it be?” I weighed up the pros and cons; mountain biking was a big component of the event, and, as an MTB endurance and marathon racer, was something I was comfortable with. Kayaking? Well, I had a sit-upon and got out on it occasionally. I’d just have to ramp that up. Running? That was the problem. I hated running; never seen the point of it if it wasn’t attached to some other activity — such as footy. Abseiling? Make that up on the spot.

Then there were the realities of life: marriage, three kids, a busy job that demanded long and irregular hours and often took me overseas. And more basically, at 48, did I really want to do this to myself? Damn right I did!

Having made an arguably dumb decision, I then made a smart one, enlisting the aid of leading cycling coach Jenni King, Australia’s best female mountain biker, who should be on the start line at the Olympics in a couple months. She came up with a program that gradually built up my kayaking and running durations, while keeping the riding going.

By the time I jumped on the plane to Tassie in early December, I’d done as much as I could — not as much I would have liked, but I was comfortably kayaking for an hour at a time and, more surprisingly, enjoying my hour-plus jogs at an average 9-10km/h two to three times a week.

Once ensconced at Freycinet Lodge — our base for pre-race prep and the first day of competition — it was time for a press conference and one-on-one with Webber. Much to his annoyance, he was only going to be contesting  the first day of the race before jetting off to Delhi to pick up his gong for finishing third in the 2011 Formula 1 world championship.

“This event is about people coming and contesting an event where they are going to learn about themselves, because they are going to be tested,” he predicted. He was right too…

Next up, I finally met Pat, my team-mate for the next five days. We had adopted the name “Writers’ Cramp” — OK, corny —  and would be racing against 13 other enthusiast teams in the five-day Van Diemen Cup, no doubt eating the dust and spray of the 11 pro teams, including such luminaries as Guy Andrews, Jarrod Kohler and local hero Mark Padgett.

With his knowledge of adventure racing and his obvious fitness, he was an invaluable ally. That Pat turned out to be a great bloke, and terrifically patient with his bumbling, stumbling team-mate, was just as an important.

You see, this was not just a flat-out race. Time-bonus options were thrown into the mix so you had to decide whether you could trek the extra kays and save overall time without expending too much critical energy.

The idea was to inject more strategy and keep the racing tight. What it actually did was force the leading pro teams to contest all the options to stay in contention. For lesser lights such as us, it was a case of picking and choosing carefully.

We made some good calls; on Day 1 we collected the MTB bonuses despite warnings that the climbing would be a killer. Pat read the map and disagreed. He was right, God bless him. The riding was fun, the views stunning and the time gain significant.

On Day 2 at Fortescue Bay, we took the kayak option out to the famed Totem Pole sea stack. In the chop, my technique was shown up and the decision to not use a skirt was a mistake, as we limped into shore last and listing. From a race perspective it was a poor decision, but the beauty of that rocky defile, with seals watching on, was almost sensory overload .

Pat and I quickly learned to work together. Unquestionably, he was the captain. He was the better paddler and so sat at the rear and steered. He was also the better runner, his long legs able to spring across rough ground in one bound where I tap-danced in three. Yet with our policy of power-walking the ups and running the flats and downs, I could hang in there.

MTB was undoubtedly our strongest combined skill and we were disappointed that most of the riding was on gravel roads and didn’t include more single-track.

One thing we never quite got the hang of was transitions. All that swapping on and off of kayak skirts, PFDs [personal flotation devices], shoes, number vests and Camelbaks drove us nuts. And don’t forget the food, water and 30+ sunscreen. We always seemed to arrive before other competitors, yet exit well after them.

Maps and details of each day’s action were handed out only the night before, so that meant heads-down planning of our route, packing our two boxes to ensure we had the right gear at the right transition, and trying to figure out the navigation between the checkpoints. We became obsessed with finding these orange-and-white markers and clipping our card.

I’m proud to say we made it to every mandatory checkpoint. Admittedly, we had trouble finding some of them, and one nearly broke us. That was on Bruny Island on Day 3, which was already the toughest day of the race, with the potential to do 95km if you went for all the options. It started with a 12km paddle into a headwind and chop, the effort exacerbated by the pain from under-arms rubbed raw by the PFD and blistered hands. The only real highlight of the grim crossing was hanging onto the wash of AFL legend Glenn Archer and partner Nick Maywald, who were joining the race in the Ambassador Cup three-day event.

The other killer was a 10km run that took us scrambling up and down a Kokoda-like track, plucking off leeches  as shin-deep mud sucked at our shoes. The last kay or so up a winding track into transition was cruel — worse for the teams who turned left instead of right and had to endure extra climbing and then arrive at transition to find the water had run out.

This was the closest I came to sitting down and giving up, but Pat just kept on and there was no way I could let him down. I came to an agreement with myself: lock on to his feet, acknowledge the pain and then shove it to the back of my mind.

By the time we were on the bike for the final 15km leg it was pouring and we were exhausted. So much so, we’d ridden almost to the finish before Pat realised we hadn’t clocked in at the final checkpoint. Several unprintable words later, we turned around and, with new-found energy, stormed back 5km to the innocuous wharf we’d missed. Each time a puzzled team passed us, going in the right direction, I wanted to scream.

By now our fatigue wasn’t due only to sheer effort. Lack of sleep was taking a toll. Between the drying out of constantly wet and sweaty clothes, planning, packing, preparing, eating and transporting between stages, we struggled to get five hours a night.

The whole field seemed to be afflicted on Day 4 in the Hartz Mountains, where we all blundered about in the bush trying to find the right junction. Once located, it was back into more mud and slime, more slipping and falling and staggering.

At the end of the day’s last MTB stage we were at it again, eight of us scratching and clucking, debating where to go — and then heading in precisely the wrong direction.

Then Pat and I nearly added injury to insult, capsizing over a “waterfall” in the final 12km paddle on the Huon River to the finish. OK, the drop was only a metre and I was underwater for mere seconds, but it was no fun thrashing around trying to find my way to the surface in the murk.

With all our problems, our day had taken a raw and wet nine hours and 13 minutes, with not one optional bonus collected to dull the pain.

The last thing I wanted to do was any more kayaking, but there was no choice on the final day in and around Hobart — not only paddle, but also carry the paddle and PFD to the top of at least one “peak”. In total, there were nine peaks to hit in six hours. How you split them between kayaking, running and biking was up to you.

We stuffed it up, spending too much time in the kayak and not enough on the bike. As a result, we got to only seven of nine peaks in the required time. There was no question of staying out longer than the six hours, as each minute incurred a stiff time penalty.

Remarkably, the kayaking went well. After five days we’d  really gelled. My bike leg, by contrast, suffered. The steep climb up the Southern Outlet as traffic whipped by in the rain at 100km/h was almost too much. Again, Pat pressed on and I knew what to do: follow his wheel, banish the pain.

Thankfully, the final roll back to the finish was all downhill. So sweet, and almost as sweet as the beer presented and guzzled at the finishing line. It was a relief and a pleasure to complete such an incredible challenge, and a delight to learn we’d finished a creditable fourth in class and 14th outright. So consumed by competing, we hadn’t even thought about results.

For me, there were even bigger victories. I’d made a bond with Pat that will stay with me, and met inspiring individuals for whom my respect is complete. I’d also surprised myself, passing a stern test of physical and mental fitness better than I expected.

Would I recommend you do it? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Hmmm. Let me think about that.

About the MWC

The Mark Webber Challenge is becoming one of Australia’s best-known multi-sport events.

Origins

The Challenge began in 2003, when Mark Webber and a group of friends took on a 1000km journey across Tasmania. It ran as a multi-sport race between 2006-08 before taking a break, but returned in December 2011 as an annual event.

Disciplines and distances

The event runs for five days over approximately 350km of wide-ranging terrain. The main sports are kayaking, mountain biking and trail running, with rope work, swimming and a few added surprises.

Where and when

The 2012 Challenge will begin in Launceston on November 28 and will take in the Bay of Fires, Binalong Bay, Barnbougle and Bicheno before a final day in Hobart.

How to get involved

Categories are elite pairs, enthusiast pairs and teams pairs. The latter still races as a pair, but allows a team of three people to enter and share the load. A 6.5km adventure run will also take place in Hobart on the final day.

Charities

The Mark Webber Challenge Foundation uses the event to raise money for a variety of charities throughout Australia. The 2011 Challenge raised more than $100,000 to support the Save the Tasmanian Devil appeal and the Whitelion youth charity.

Costs and prizes

Entry fees can be found on the website and there is an $1400 early bird team-entry discount for teams that enter before May 31. Prize money will be offered to the elite pairs.

Sign up

To sign up, go to markwebber tasmaniachallenge.com