The inaugural 2787km Endurazone race is New Zealand's toughest endurance event - and its creators took the family along for the ride, writes DITA DE BONI.
For someone who finds a walk from one end of the newsroom to the other a trial, the idea of such a gruelling adventure race seems like the most heinous type of masochistic torture.
And yet, late last year, despite its inevitable traumas, an astounding 63 multisport athletes undertook from 6-10 hours of intense exercise daily for an entire month.
Their route was tortuous, even for the seasoned. Participants climbed up and down 24,000 vertical metres, cycled 1459km on roads, mountain-biked 619km, ran 313km and kayaked 396km in a madcap expedition from Bluff to Cape Reinga - the most epic endurance race available to adventurers in New Zealand, if not the world.
Undertaking the course is admirable - and slightly barmy - enough. But organising and running the 2787km event, which coincided with at least 15 consecutive days of howling spring rain, is its own type of purgatory.
Add to that the fact that the husband and wife race organisers lugged a toddler, newborn twin boys and mother around the 28-day course (as well as a full contingent of 37 full-time staff and a horde of volunteers and support crew), and it might seem that there is something funny in the water down Turangi way, where the idea to scale the length of the country originated.
And yet, meeting race director Greg Carlyon, his wife Marie Gurney (no relation to race winner Steve Gurney), and their chatty toddler Ellen on a sunny day in Taupo proves they are far from the mad people a sloth of a reporter might imagine them to be.
Sure, they are sports nuts ("usually me at the back and and her at the front end" says he), adrenalin junkies and suckers for punishment, but otherwise they seem mentally sound.
The first Mizone Endurazone race, which consumed the pair for two years and took place in late November and early December last year, is over, and Gurney and Carlyon are back to being a full-time mum of three (Gurney) and Department of Conservation resource management specialist (Carlyon).
But they are now looking forward to the next race - scheduled for November next year - which already necessitates plenty of planning in their spare time.
The second race will need only a few minor adjustments. Carlyon says the first-time course was perfect and he will be changing little.
"We might tweak a bit next time, but it was mainly right. It was a magic route to follow, the right direction [from Bluff to Cape Reinga] and the communities we encountered were keen and supportive. It was fantastic."
R EWIND to around four months before the race, when the mood was not so celebratory and the organisers and main sponsor, Frucor, maker of Mizone Sportswater, were uncertain whether the race would come off as planned.
Although it had been announced in January (before the sponsor came on board in May) and had been in the works for two years (the idea had been tossed around for almost a decade among multisport athletes), the period leading up to the race was fraught for Gurney and Carlyon. They had plenty of their own money sunk into the venture and were jittery over whether they'd given birth to a success - or would have to sell their house.
"Getting [the athletes] to Bluff and starting, I felt like we'd already finished one race," says Carlyon. "We'd been working solidly for a couple of months, and wondering if we could do it. That was a really big call for both Mizone and us ... it was certainly the tensest time for us in the whole race."
At times the future of the race looked seriously shaky. But the athletes taking part - only one did not complete the course - offered to do anything it took to see it proceed.
Many had given up their jobs to compete. Most had trained for more than six months, in some cases for up to 30 hours a week around their regular work schedules, as well as paying a $2450 entry fee. They certainly weren't going to see their dreams to conquer their "personal Mt Everest", as it was billed, disappear in a cloud of steamy sweat before they'd even broken their trainers in.
In the end it was a matter of getting everyone assembled at Bluff, firing the starter's gun, and hoping for the best.
Carlyon, who has written several adventure books, put together adventure maps and mountain-biking publications, knew that once they were off, the route would be exciting enough to challenge even the fittest athlete. Over the previous months he had tracked the length and breadth of the country to map out the course, and knew it was going to be gruelling.
So what would make someone pay money to exhaust themselves day after day? "Well, they're probably all a little bit mad," says Carlyon with a laugh. They were also older - average age 40 - with an ability to pace themselves, apply their life experience and think the race through strategically.
"They're people who want to push the boundaries in their lives and achieve things they can look back on and be really proud of - all elite athletes without exception, and mentally very strong."
Although the field was predominantly male, the five individual female racers and one all-female team gave the men a run for their money. The top woman - the awe-inspiring Kristina Strode-Penny - was "racing in the top 10 men every day and caning them on a regular basis", says Carlyon.
Competition days for the athletes - there were only two rest days in 30 - began at around 4.30 am, when they would be fed, in good time to digest calorie-laden meals, before the starter's bell at between 6 and 8 am.
At the end of their 6 to 10-hour days, they would stay overnight in the lodgings of their choice - some chose motels for themselves and their crews, while a few others slept beneath the stars - and one in a deer trailer hooked to the back of his truck. Consequently, the total cost of taking part (on top of the entrance fee) varied between competitors, with some spending as much as $70,000 and others as little as $1700.
The lifestyle of the race organisers, who followed in a convoy, was complicated, too, particularly for the indispensable Gurney. Her tasks included getting three very young children to the starting line each morning, which meant rising at around 5 am each day. Then, after seeing the athletes off, Gurney followed the tail-enders as the race progressed, picking up the markers along the way.
She admits to several times when howling rain and howling children tested her own endurance, and to being tempted by her husband's repeated suggestion that she, a highly competent multisport athlete, compete in the next race. As she wails, "Oh God! It has to be easier to compete than to organise!"
On a different vehicle, usually the bus from where the race management took place, was Carlyon, who Gurney was "lucky to see five minutes each day". The bus would be in use late into the night, while organisers planned the next day's activities and doled out duties before the crew could go to bed.
"The schedule wasn't so bad normally," says Carlyon. "But what made it hard in the North Island was that we got 15 days of rain in a row, so for six days we had to completely change the course each day because we couldn't get to the original track."
He points to the beautiful Taupo sun and blue sky. "A few days of this and you forget it, but right until our last day it was heinous."
The last day - mercifully - was a stunner, as the athletes chugged into Cape Reinga, which was the high point for the organisers as well. The pair put that day's $1000 prize money ($1000 was doled out every day as a spot prize) into treats at Far North transition points - chocolate, champagne, beer and other goodies - many of which were gulped by all but the very serious competitors as the race end beckoned. As a result, some of them were "half-cut by the time they crossed the finish line", says Carlyon, pointing out that even so, the scorching hot day had finished with a 25km sand dune run.
"We all felt we'd accomplished an amazing thing, even the last guy, whose eyes rolled back in his head."
The prize-giving that night, at which men's winner Steve Gurney and women's champ Strode-Penny picked up $30,000 each, was also emotionally charged - enough so that Carlyon and Gurney are now confident about making the race a world-recognised event to rival the one-day Coast to Coast or one-week Eco-Challenge races.
F IRST order of business will have to be upping the entry fee and possibly getting more support from government agencies such as Tourism New Zealand.
The total 30-day Endurazone was run on a budget of $550,000, truly shoe-string when you consider that to run one day of Ironman, with all its peripheral activities and advertising, comes in at around $650,000.
Frucor/Mizone sponsored the event to the tune of several hundred thousands of dollars (exact amounts are not disclosed), and while Carlyon and Gurney would love to see them back as sponsor and have nothing but praise for the company's dedication, they say they will put another race on "in whatever form it takes to get done". However, with or without extra sponsorship, the entry fees will still need to almost double to just under $4000 next year, which, Carlyon insists, is still a bargain.
"To enter the Ironman for one day is nearly $700, the Southern Traverse is $5000 for a team four-day event, and the Eco-Challenge, run in October, is $30,000, so I think we're in the right ballpark."
Last year Industry New Zealand helped towards the Endurazone while a couple of MPs pitched in with personal support. Defence minister Mark Burton, who is the couple's local MP, was "brilliant", while education minister Trevor Mallard escaped the hot waters of the secondary teachers' dispute to make slightly more headway in the cool, choppy waters of Wellington Harbour. Mallard joined the racers for 3 1/2 hours as they paddled from the heads of the harbour all the way into town.
"It's a shame he didn't paddle Cook Strait but he was still pretty knackered from the paddling he did do," says Carlyon.
On the downside, the race could not secure support from Tourism New Zealand, which had already pitched in around $600,000 to October's Eco-Challenge to help foreign media cover that event. However, Carlyon says he can't blame the agency, although he hopes to register further on its radar screen next time.
"Eco-Challenge is the huge international adventure race and backing it makes sense, as they get four hours of viewing time in North America through the coverage. They make it for TV, and have a 60-strong crew here, so from that perspective, it's a good investment."
Endurazone is different, but still a great showcase for New Zealand, he says. The course is not marked with tape as the Eco-Challenge is (competitors can take any route they want on the major legs), there is little filming and media coverage and, possibly because of the the sheer newness and spontaneity of the event, there is a different intensity and scale.
"The top athletes in the Eco-Challenge are still the ones who would win our race but the intensity is a bit less for that one, I think," Carlyon says.
The laissez-faire atmosphere of the Endurazone also seems to engender more of a family feel even if, in some cases, it's an unhappy family - for example when a day's course turns out to be an hour longer than planned, or an unexpected high tide means riding a bike through knee-high surf. "I live on a lake, I have a little way to go in understanding tides!" laughs Carlyon.
Then there is the family feel that comes from helping to raise $50,000 for the teen cancer charity, Canteen - mostly donated by competitors from their hard-won spot prizes. And it is that less profit-driven, more communal feeling that Carlyon and Gurney say they are looking to keep.
"I think the race is like a family on the move," Carlyon says. "We have our fair share of hurts and arguments and quite heated discussions, but I think that the thing that was special for me is that it does intensify everyone's emotions so the happy times are amazing and people, including the communities we pass through, pull together.
"It was run professionally, but we weren't running a professional, commercial event as the priority. We were running a journey for people. Once that [starter's] gun went we just knew each day we'd get through."