Words: Hollie Woodhouse
Images: Justin James
On any other day, a 4am wake-up call has me hating the noise which has rudely awakened me, my body acutely aware that it still has a few more hours left before the light begins to shine on a new day. But not this day. I’ve been waiting six months for this moment, possibly years even when I think about it. Hours upon hours of training, covering too many kilometres to count via foot, bike and kayak. The penultimate of adventure races – The Kathmandu Coast to Coast Longest Day.
I glance around and glimpse the faces of competitors revealed by the spotlight, aware that I am surrounded by the best of the best, not just in New Zealand, but the world. My stomach does a flip; the butterflies increase tenfold. After a summer that couldn’t have been worse weather-wise, the gods are smiling down on us and have delivered what could be one of the best mornings ever known to Kumara Beach on New Zealand’s West Coast. The sea is dead calm, perfectly lit by the full moon sitting low in the sky. I touch the water; a ritual well-known to all who compete in this iconic event. The superstorm that rolled through a few weeks earlier has changed the landscape significantly, resulting in a cliff and river now between the 4WD track and the sea. Deciding that wet feet this early on is not the best idea, I opt for the new river to wet my fingers. I am more than OK with this.
Ahead of me, I have a mammoth task; three kilometres of road running, 55 kilometres of road biking, 33 kilometres of mountain running, 15 kilometres of road biking, one kilometre of gravel road running, 67 kilometres of kayaking, and finally to finish, 70 kilometres of road biking; from one side of New Zealand to the other, a total of 243 kilometres in one day. I know I can do it; this race is as much, if not more, mental than it is physical. Just how the day will unfold, though, is the reason for my nerves, the endless thoughts and the uneasy feeling that sits low in my stomach; a constant reminder of what I have voluntarily signed up for.
I hug Grant and Scott who are standing beside me and wish them all the best. “See you at New Brighton,” we all say. Two of my best friends and training buddies, they have pushed me in every aspect in the lead-up to this race, willing me to keep up with their longer legs and lightning pace, always waiting for me when I’ve been out of sight for a tad too long. Their smiles say it all; we are ready.
In a flash, I’m breathing hard, sucking in the cold morning air and waiting for the lactic acid burn to reach my legs, but it doesn’t appear. I push harder, managing to overtake a few, a few overtaking me. Finding a steady rhythm, I glance down at my watch and notice I’m running just over a four-kilometre pace. A smile spreads across my face, and a lump appears in my throat. I quickly snap myself out of it, it’s far too early in the day to get emotional. So far, so good.
Floodlights shine on the bikes racked in numbered order as competitors race to find their own, with most swapping their running shoes for road bike shoes as quickly as possible before getting back on the tar seal and starting the first bike leg of the day. I crank the big gear and start to wind up the legs (the ‘mongrel gear’ as I later hear it being referred to), catching the two girls ahead of me. After regaining my breath, I share some friendly “hello’s” while we work together to catch the group ahead, and it’s not long until we are caught by a group behind. Settling into a rhythm, our pack, minus one whose chain came off, end up riding the whole way together to Transition One (TA1). As night slowly gives way to the day, we find ourselves surrounded by the low morning mist and some breathtaking scenery. A truly magical morning on the bike, I couldn’t be happier as we cruise along at an average speed of 30 kilometres an hour.
Carefully crossing the train lines, I pull ahead knowing I have only a few kilometres left before the end of the bike stage. With at least 20 in my bunch, I don’t want to get caught up amongst everyone getting off their bikes. I rack my bike (just, it’s a little too small to touch the ground!) and wake up the legs as my eyes search for a familiar face in the crowd. With relief, I quickly spot Scottie, one of my support crew superstars, standing half way down the chute waving at me. Like clockwork, the shoes, helmet and bib come off, replaced by sneakers, pack and the bib back over the top. I’m buzzing; a crash, puncture or even just not being part of a bunch were my biggest fears. Mentally, if I can be in a good space right from the start, then chances are I’m in for a good day. Juj (Juliet) hands me my visor, and I can hear Mum and Dad cheering me on. I flash them all a smile, adding, “See you at Klondyke,” before running off through the gate and along the paddock towards the first river crossing.
Did that just happen? My two main support crew members, Scottie Scott and Juj Scott (yes, sisters) have never helped crew at any event before, let alone the Coast to Coast One Day. I’d printed out a schedule on how I imagined the day would unfold; what food when, the order of the gear to put on and off, and compulsory gear that needed to be scrutineered, etc. I told them to watch how other competitors ahead of me did it, although the speed that the top guys and girls go through, where every second counts, is something else. By comparison, I was having a cup of tea and biscuits! One transition down and they’d nailed it. Not that I ever doubted them, but they did tell me afterwards that they felt so much better after the first transition was over and everything had gone to plan.
The rivers are running at a reasonable flow, which to most is OK but to me means I have to pick my lines carefully. I stumble down the bank to the first crossing, just behind a group of guys making their way slowly to the other side. They are heading straight across, but I can see the tape on the other side is slightly downstream, so rip, shit and bust I hit the flow and charge on through. Within seconds it is tits up. I lose my footing and instantly find myself submerged, neck-deep in the river. Reaching out I manage to grab hold of a rock with both hands and pull myself back up, steadying my footing and making my way out of the main flow. “Refreshing dip?” comes a comment from one of the race officials. I smile and nod, I am now in front of the three guys and ready for my favourite part of the race.
The run up Goats Pass goes by in a blur. The track, now noticeably different after the recent superstorm, is well marked and easy to follow. The long flat stretches slowly change into rocks, which then turn into boulders. A couple of times I feel myself falling flat, instantly recognising the signs as not taking enough fuel on board. Reaching into my pockets, I pull out some wet scroggin (trail mix) and Frooze Balls – ideal energy food to eat on the run and which can easily survive many river dunkings.
One of the great things about adventure racing is the people you meet. Nearing the top, a guy catches up to me who I have spent almost six months kayaking with on Tuesday mornings, but have never said more than a “hello” to. We chat away, sharing our thoughts on the day and how we are both feeling at that current stage. It’s not always about racing hard and busting your gut, but being able to enjoy the unexpected moments that come with competing in these types of events.
Reaching the hut, we come across the compulsory gear check. This year we have to show our thermal top and bottoms, woollen gloves and waterproof jacket. There are plenty of marshals around to help, off comes the bib, followed by the pack and out comes the gear. It’s always the way; I just can’t find my gloves. Eventually, they fall out after pulling almost everything out of my pack, so everything is jammed back in, pack on and with help again, down comes the bib.
Taking on food, I walk up the last steep section before hitting the boardwalks. I am nervous how the legs will be feeling, I find climbing a lot easier than running on the flat, but I am feeling great. The weather is perfect – sunny but not too warm, and the legs quickly fall into a rhythm and don’t want to stop. In no time, I reach the beech forest followed by Dudley’s Knob, the last real climb of the race and a great indicator that I have only an hour left of the run.
The last three kilometres of the mountain run are well-known as torture. You can see the finish line, but you’ve got an endless amount of river bed to cross, rocky underfoot with no real path to take. I have been through a few times in training and can’t find a path down the grass bank, so I make the decision to pick a straight line from the railway bridge and go for it. Running over rocks is an art, and if you are confident it can be a huge advantage, not only for speed but also for the energy you save. Thankfully, over time this is something I have improved a lot, so that final stretch isn’t as painful as it has been in the past.
I can see and hear my support crew waiting patiently for me on the edge of the bank. I am wearing a tracker for the day, something I would highly recommend to anyone competing. Not for your own sake, but for the sanity of your support crew. The hardest part of helping crew these events is the unknown. Where are they? What time are they going to come in? Are they OK? At least with a tracker, they know exactly where I am (minus the section where the tracking system went down!), which also helps with the nerves and stress levels.
It is another boomer transition; these girls are on fire. Some Gurney Goo (that stuff is liquid gold) under the arms for chaffing, a salami wrap to get some real food into me, a quick drink of electrolytes and I am off to bike the section that connects the two biggest stages of the day, the mountain run and the kayak.
Juj has been nominated to meet me at the top of the hill with some sneakers and food, running down with me to my kayak. She is brilliant, handing me water and a banana as I make my way down the one kilometre of gravel road to the Mt White Bridge below. The spray deck is pulled on, followed by my lifejacket and helmet, then it is into the boat which is being held in the water by Dad. I’m sure my transitions are slow in comparison to others, but to me they are ideal. Calm enough that nothing is an issue, fast enough that no time is wasted. After checking the drinking system is working, and the paddle is handed to me, they push me off into the main flow to begin what up until this moment I would have described as my weakest leg.
Kayaking and I haven’t seen eye-to-eye. I think it’s due to my dip while competing in the Two-Day event three years ago, but ever since then, I have feared the water. Scared of the boils, scared of the wave trains, scared of the rock faces, and petrified of tipping out again. Because of this, I made the decision to stick with my JKK Eclipse 5.2 – a beginner’s boat who I had affectionately named ‘The Battleship’. While I had spent many hours training on the Avon, the nor’westers meant I had only managed to get down the river once in the lead up to the race, and while I didn’t fall out, there was more than one occasion where I was floating uncontrollably backwards.
“Don’t be a wuss, Hollie,” is my mantra as I settle into a steady rhythm. No chicken runs are allowed today, avoid the boils and take the faster line. “You’re in the safest boat there is, just go for it.” And that I do, and in doing so, have the best trip to date down the Waimak, which is sitting at an ideal 80 cumecs. Maybe the boat won’t go on Trade Me on Sunday! Apart from the numb ass, I love it. And once again it shows that if I'm strong in the head, it has such an enormous impact on how I race. I am expecting to get overtaken by many, and as a female competitor flies past me before I hit the gorge like I am standing still, I tell myself that no matter the outcome, I am so happy with how I have raced. As one hour turns into two, then three and four, I keep looking back expecting to see boats gaining on me, but to my surprise there are none. Just me and the battleship for a little over five hours.
I know I have to get to the Gorge Bridge and the end of the kayak leg before 6pm to avoid wearing a high-vis vest on the bike back to New Brighton. But as I cruise past Woodstock at 5.45pm, with another hour of flat paddling ahead of me, I know my chance of making it in time is gone. Pulling up to the beach at the end, the relief I feel is huge, the smile on my face says it all – no spills, no boils, no paddling backwards. Just one stage left to go.
Dad is there to pull me out, and Scottie and Juj ready to help where they can. It takes a few seconds to get the blood pumping again and the legs back in working order, but after a few ginger steps up the beach I am able to kick it up a gear and run up the hill. “I can do this. One more leg, that’s all,” I say, more to myself than my support crew, as I change my top and pour half a can of Red Bull down my throat. Up until now, I have managed to hold off on too much sugar and gels, but with the final stretch ahead of me I know I will need a bit of extra help as I head into the easterly headwind. Pushing my bike up the goat track to the road above, the girls pop out yelling and cheering. “See you at the finish line,” I yell back, crossing the bridge, winding up the gears and settling in for the final stretch to the finish line.
“27 kilometres of straight road ahead,” I read as I whizz past a sign zip tied to a power pole. Great, I think, that’s the most demoralising thing I have seen all day! With more shelter belts than not, I am crouched down as low as possible to reduce the draft and hide from the wind. A sign half-way down from a school friend lifts the spirits enormously, so grateful to have support along the way. Cars are leap-frogging me, and as they appear quicker and quicker each time, I know I am being caught. ‘Dig it in, dig it in,” I keep telling myself, but unfortunately, I am overtaken by two girls on the final stretch, one with 20 kilometres to go and one with six. I thought I would be gutted, but they fly by me, and I have nothing but respect for them. They both deserve to overtake me, and I vow there and then that if I was ever to do this again, I need to be stronger on the bike. Proof of this comes from both the male and female winners, Sam Clarke and Elina Ussher, who overtake the second-place getters on the final bike leg to take the wins. It isn’t over till it’s over.
Finally reaching the Southern Motorway it is beginning to get dark, and by the time I make my final turn onto Beach Road, it is night time. I had thought about this moment for so long, riding the last stretch down New Brighton Beach, and had imagined I would be emotional. But I am not at all. The pressure and expectations seem to lift off me, and the satisfaction that I know I am about to finish is enormous. I had a goal to do it under 16 hours, and I am on track to do it more than half an hour faster than I expected.
Pulling into the finish area, I dismount my bike awkwardly and take off. Never throughout the day do I feel that I can’t keep going, and now is no different. Running up the finishing chute and hearing my name and number over the loudspeaker is a moment I’ll never forget. People are clapping and cheering, and I can hear Mum and Dad yelling as I take the final five metres of the 243-kilometre day up the stairs to the finish. My smile says it all. Six months of intense training, of constantly talking and thinking about this race and I have bloody done it. I couldn’t be prouder of my achievement.
While the Kathmandu Coast to Coast Longest Day is an individual event, it’s anything but. Mum, Dad, Scottie and Juj live my dream with me throughout the whole day, while people from all over are watching me clock through each checkpoint on the App, cheering me on. To not only complete it but achieve a result that I am so incredibly proud of is fantastic. I cross the line in a time of 15:24:15, ninth in the Open Women and 11th overall. Just outside the top ten, I’m still undecided if I have unfinished business or not.
I can’t express how thankful I am to have such a supportive network of family, friends and sponsors. I put my heart and soul into the race and feel like I achieved an excellent result for everyone who has been part of this journey with me. With a few days now passed, I look back and wonder what I could have done differently, where I could have made up a few extra minutes, but nothing stands out. Yes, a faster kayak would have helped, but my goal was to get down dry and enjoy it, and I smashed that. Yes, I could have gone faster on the bike, but I was pushing as hard as I could throughout the entire race so I feel I did the best I could while in the moment. And the run, again I loved it. It’s still my favourite part of the entire day – the scenery, the challenge and on this day, the weather. I'm so incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to experience this breathtaking landscape right on my doorstep.
Hollie Woodhouse is the publisher of this magazine you're holding in your hands. She has no more major events planned to date, although chances are this will change over the next few months.