Coast to Coast: The Longest Day

Coast to Coast: The Longest Day

 

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I’m going to be up front from the start. I was not ready for this race.

With 140km of cycling, 33km of running and 70km of kayaking, the numbers alone look tough. Weave these stats into the mountainous wilderness of the Southern Alps and this race comes alive.

Since its humble beginnings in 1983, where a mere 25 pioneers took on the course, the Coast to Coast has grown to become the undisputed pinnacle of world multisport.

I first heard about it years ago, standing around the office photocopier. A colleague fondly recalled a story of a spectacular adventure. So when I landed in New Zealand and heard it was on, I decided it would be rude not to have a go.

A couple of weeks into my training, I bumped into Steve Gurney, a living legend. This man is the most successful athlete in multisport history – who’s won this monster nine times.

“The key to this one is specificity,” he said. “It’s unique terrain, so get used to it. Practice boulder-hopping, do long hours and get used to white-water. I spent two or three years on the river before I even contemplated the Coast to Coast; any less and you will waste energy and risk injury.”

Bugger. I had four weeks.

You need a Grade Two certificate in white-water kayaking before signing up. The only time I remembered being in a kayak was a couple of hours spent trying to capsize friends on a lake in Snowdonia. With no time, boat or experience there was only one thing for it – a few blatant lies about the ferocity of Llyn Tegid and I was on a course. Two days and four capsized rapids later and I had my ticket. The patience and knowledge of the guides at Topsport Kayaking had a lot to do with getting me through. However, getting through the Grade Two examination and facing the Waimakariri Gorge alone, without the watchful eyes and calculated lines of river guides, are two different things. The 70km of white-water changes daily, so chances are on race day I’ll encounter a completely different river.

The Race

It’s 5:15am and I’m already two bacon sandwiches down. A sky full of foreign stars flicker above my head, mirrored by a string of head torches dancing down the beach in front of me. I follow the pre-race tradition of dipping my running shoes into the Tasman Sea and line up. The sacrifices people have made to get here are remarkable. From the five people I’ve just met, two have given up their jobs and sold their homes.
There’s no more time to think. The tension breaks with a 3km stampede over the pitch black sand. Two people are down within 50m. It seems an absurd way to start such long day but everyone is desperate to catch a good group for the first 55km cycle leg. I make it into the second group, the elite 15 are gone for the day.
Immediately, the old generals start barking orders, herding us into the efficient lines of a 30 strong chain-gang. Although it’s an individual race we’re in this bit together. Most people do their share but there’s always a few hiding at the back. I hear them getting an earful and soon enough the passengers disappear.
I look up from the middle of the peleton and see the Southern Alps appear in front of me. Their vast craggy outline bathed in the soft glow of dawn. The day hasn’t even started and I’m already covered in energy gels and sweating buckets.

Down hill from here! Goats Pass, crossing the Southern Alps.

The next stage is a 33km mountain run over Goats Pass, but before I even start, I’m thrown on a chair, watered, fed and smothered in sunscreen. This is my possie. Every competitor must have a support team to follow them with kit and food. Without them this would be impossible, they’re the ringside coaches that sort you out between rounds.

I’m barely out of transition and I’m up to my waist in chilling water, clambering over massive boulders. They call the next leg a run but in reality it’s more of a mad crawl up a riverbed relying just as much on strength and stability as it does on running ability. By the time I’m at the top of the pass, 800m up, I’ve fallen twice, crossed 17 rivers and lost my sunglasses and hat in the process. I’m having ball.

Six hours in and I reach the Waimakariri Gorge to begin the 70km kayak section. The river is running at 38 cumex, half the flow of my last outing – meaning that more technique and energy is needed. This is my fourth time ever whitewater kayaking and I’m bricking it. If I’m too slow I’ll miss the time cut-off, if I capsize or get pinned against a rock I risk breaking my boat and myself.

I’m just entering the narrowest section of Gorge when I start cramping. I’ve drank too much and flushed my body of all the good stuff. The technique that got me through my training was all power no panache, attacking anything with foam on it. With this option gone, I’ve got to get into the rough stuff if I’m going to make it down in time – let the river do the work. I head into the first S-bend with my heart pounding in my ears, If I hadn’t already weed in my kayak I would have done here; a shear rock-face on one side and whirlpool on the other with a narrow strip of good fast water flowing through the middle.

Somehow it clicks and finally this silly water makes sense. I cramp for most of the way down but start enjoying the ride. It seems that I’ve learnt to kayak on race day.

Gurning like I mean it in the Waimakariri Gorge

I crawl out of my kayak 12 hours after leaving the beach this morning. My legs have seized on the way down and sulk for a while as my support team drag me towards my bike.

As I start turning the cranks a weight lifts off my shoulders. I understand this machine – we’re old friends. There’s no white water, no whirlpools or hidden rocks to stop me. One foot after the other and I’m there. There’s a pint calling me home.

Three hours later, the sun having just set and I’m running over dark sands towards the Pacific Ocean and the finish line, three and a half hours after the winner, Sam Clark who took 11 hrs 37min to cross a country.
In his own words:

“This is a race for hard b@#%£@£s.”

Out of the 101 people who started, only 83 finish. I came home in 47th position. I might not have been ready, but I got through and my bucket list is one down. Waiting to be ready for such a race could see it never come. Take your chances.

My sister, Gwen, supplying the recovery drinks…

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