The first step on my journey to the big time multisport races (Red Bull Defiance and Coast to Coast) began in October with the Hard Labour Weekend in Twizel.
It’s a superb group of events run by locals as a fundraiser for youth sports teams and community groups. There are options for all ages and abilities to compete, but it also attracts entries from top level, experienced multisport athletes. The multisport event consisted of 3 stages raced over 2 days. Saturday morning was a 20km kayak around Lake Ruataniwha and down the Ohau canal to Lake Benmore, including the negotiation of two dams; followed that afternoon by a 40km mountain bike weaving along the foothills behind Twizel. We then finished off with a 21.1km trail run around Pyramid Hill on Sunday morning.
But the tale really begins before race day.
I had been paddling a fabulous Flow Kayaks Rockstar for the majority of my flat water kayak training over the past couple of months. It was sleek and classy, and made me feel like a rockstar of a paddler (yes I pretended I was Lisa Carrington on her way to Olympic gold). The only catch is that it was borrowed. And two days before the race I found out that it was no longer available for me to use over the weekend. Ah well, there goes my gold medal hopes! I wasn’t sure that I wanted to get back in my trusty Eclipse for race day, and there was the offer, from Defiance team mate Chris, of a more advanced boat – faster but much less stable. Well it would only be faster over the 20km distance if I could keep it upright. Given my limited kayaking experience to date I was somewhat dubious that my skills were up to the mark, but I took Chris’s Sharp out for a quick paddle on the Avon early Friday morning and decided yep let’s give this a go. All the while the little voice in my head was telling me that my ability to stay stable would be significantly compromised after close to 20km of racing.
My first multisport race, the longest paddle in my kayaking life, in a boat I’d never paddled – what could go wrong!
We packed up kayaks, mountain bikes, food and gear for four people and boosted down to Twizel after work on Friday. Despite my best efforts to be organised, late that evening the boys were still fiddling around helping me to get the boat set up comfortably and to whip up some sort of semi-functional hydration system. We (read, I) finally managed to get ourselves organised and get some kip before an early start for racing the next day.
On Saturday we were greeted with a crisp, frosty morning and the kayaks had gained a layer of ice overnight. There was the general pre-race phaffing – I’m still peckish where’s that bacon and creamed rice?….Do I really need to use the bathroom or is that just nerves?…Can I apply sunscreen without getting my hands greasy?…How do I get in my kayak without looking too awkward? Sitting on the start line I made sure there was ample room between my equipment and anyone else’s to avoid any unfortunate incidents.
Pre-race phaffing while the sun rises at Lake Ruataniwha.
“Yep, I got this,” I thought to myself.
Five seconds later the starting hooter went and the pre-race start line serenity turned into a violent washing machine of flailing paddles and turbulent boat wash. All confidence and feelings of stability went out the window and I was momentarily stunned with a ‘oh no what have I done’ before putting my game face on. Soon enough I was happily on my way and into a good rhythm, and the paddle around the lake actually went relatively smoothly.
By the time I exited the lake for the canal there was a group of three of us that had settled in together. I ended up chatting with one of them, Rhys, and it was him that suggested we work together in the hope that both of us could post faster times.
My initial (unspoken) reaction was “Hmm that’s a kind offer, but no this is a race, can’t you see I’ve got my race face on?” But I was already pushing slightly beyond comfortable to stay with him so I quickly swallowed my girl pride and agreed to team up.
This turned out to be a fantastic decision – I made a new friend, enjoyed some entertaining conversation between huffs and puffs down the canal, and best of all it made the two portages a million times simpler by helping to carry each others kayaks.
The trio powering down the canal. Photo credit: S. Payne.
I had started pretty close to the back of the field and hadn’t paid any attention to anyone I had passed since the start so I was clueless as to where we sat in the field. But we hadn’t been passed by anyone and we were working well together, and I was still dry and upright, so in my books we were tracking just fine. One of the volunteers at the get-in after the second portage said something about second woman – I assumed I had misheard. My main focus was a strong, solid finish, and trying to keep pace with Rhys down to the last paddle stroke. But it turned out she was right – I had indeed somehow managed to nab the spot of second female in the kayak race.
The frosty start had brought clear blue skies, and the grandeur of Mt Cook made for a stunning backdrop.
While I was pleased that the kayak race resulted in no major mishaps, the focus was now on recovery, nutrition and hydration, with the mountain bike stage set to start in a few hours’ time.
Once again, while I tried to be efficient the result was still a frantic rush to make the start line in time … Long or short sleeves? Where’s that repair kit and spare tube? All this along with a few prayers to the mountain bike gods that the ageing sealant in my tubeless tyres would still do its job if I punctured.
The mountain bike stage was more familiar territory for me – I had a better idea of where to seed myself on the start line and as a rule knew how to keep myself and my bike upright. The starting gun went and we were all off with a hiss and a roar. I did get a bit too much caught up in all the excitement and about 10 minutes in I became very conscious of the fact that my heart rate was still tapped out – this is generally not my style, I prefer the steady, build into it approach. It was time to peg it back, focus on the process and find a happy rhythm. I really enjoy this aspect of racing, finding that point where you’re pushing steady and hard and seeing how long you can hold on for. It’s a bonus if that point happens to be a smidge faster than your competition!
What’s the best way to attack river crossings? Photo credit: Official Twizel Hard Labour Weekend 2016 Facebook page.
The course followed the gravel road beside the canal for a few kilometres before peeling off up a farm track across the plain toward the foothills of the Ben Ohau range. This track was lumpy, corrugated and stony, and I labelled it “hard tail hell” with sarcastic affection. The terrain made it difficult to find that uncomfortable happy place but I just kept pushing for it and eventually found myself slowly but surely passing a handful of riders. Upon reaching the top of the slog we were rewarded with a drinks station and cheer squad, before hitting some fun single track through the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of the gullies, with a few stream crossings thrown in. The view across the Mackenzie basin, when I dared to take my eyes off the trail, made the effort well worthwhile.
Slog number 2 up a false flat behind Pyramid Hill was a good test for the legs and mind, but once we crossed the stream at the top there was just one more short climb, then it was all downhill to the finish. At the stream crossing I spotted a female figure on a bike up ahead of me. I was racking my brain but was pretty sure it had only been males that I had passed up until that point. And thanks to some confusion just after the race started, I once again couldn’t determine where in the field I might be placed. She was still a fair way ahead of me so I just kept pushing at my happy pace, but found I was gaining on her and by the top of the last climb, about 5 kilometres from the finish, I was within 50 metres of her wheel. This could get exciting, I thought. The aim of the game has always been to push my own limits, but to have someone out there that also pushes your limits adds another exciting dimension.
However, I had a problem. Now that I was there, I didn’t know what to do!
Option A: Sneak past now just to have her catch me again before the finish.
Option B: Hang tight for a few minutes and assess how much gas she might have left in the tank.
I chose the latter. I made my passing manoeuvre through a section of forest with my ears pinned back.
The trail opened out onto a fast 4WD track with the finish in sight in the distance. I heard some wheels behind me and thought uh oh – but it turned out to be a couple of guys so I ducked in behind them for as long as my legs could hold on for. And it was pedal-pedal-pedal all the way to the finish – to take the spot of second female.
Ups and downs. Photo credit: Official Twizel Hard Labour Weekend 2016 Facebook page.
The overall Hard Labour rankings are based on your combined racing time over the three stages of paddle, mountain bike and run. After the day’s racing I was sitting in 2nd place female, with the stellar Jo Williams leading the charge by a long shot. I had about three minutes over Natalie Jakobs in third. I was pretty excited. It had been fun racing, and I was even further rewarded by kicking it with those awesome ladies at the front of the field.
There was just one teeny tiny issue though … my running game needs work. I wasn’t sure if I could run a half marathon comfortably let alone race one.
Sunday morning rolled around quickly and soon enough I found myself on the run start line, wondering if I could squeeze in another visit to the bathroom. The starting gun went and I tootled off at my own pace. I was lucky enough to have Defiance team mate Chris join me, and it was a good opportunity for us to suss out how we each operated under race conditions. I’m a slow starter, and while Chris struggled to put the brakes on early on it definitely paid off for me in the end. The run course began next to the canal then followed, in reverse, the final section of the mountain bike route. There was a steady climb up to the Pyramid saddle before a quick descent which was a nice opportunity to spin the legs out. It was this point, about 6 kilometres in, that I found my comfortable race pace and started to consistently pass other competitors. From that point it was relatively smooth sailing – oh yes it was certainly uncomfortable, but I was confident I could push hard to the end. Which I did! But as it turns out not quite hard enough as Natalie killed it on the run to beat me to second place overall by 45 seconds. It made for some exciting racing and is crazy to see it come down to a matter of seconds after almost six hours of racing.
And let’s not forget the post-racing goodies.
I had heard wonderful things about the quality and quantity of spot prizes on offer – I was not disappointed! Tasty wine, delicious locally made honey, funky socks, Mt Cook Alpine salmon and more wine all made it into my luggage for the way home. Twizel Hard Labour Weekend is a superbly organised event with a friendly atmosphere in a stunning location, and I would recommend it to competitors of all levels. It’s a great opportunity to get your race face on early in the season!