Adventure racers from around New Zealand are set to tackle the world's largest expedition race – GodZone Chapter 9 in Rotorua – from Thursday, with more than a dozen competitors from our own backyard.
The course, which includes native forests, hot and cold lakes, volcanic landscapes and complex river systems, has been designed with the potential of alert level 2 in mind.
The nine-day mission has been created to push every competitor to their limits – even those who are most familiar with the Bay of Plenty's challenging terrain.
Rob Griffiths is one of Rotorua's adventure racers and team captain of In our Element, which includes team members Georgie Griffiths, Neil Kerrison and Andrew Hickson. Support crew Eric Cawte, Matt Pearson and Ross Dittmer complete the squad.
Other teams which include Rotorua-based competitors are Out for the View, Eudaimonia, Nga Rakau, Adventures Powered by MITOQ, and Radix Nutrition.
"This is the first time GodZone has taken place in the North Island, and last week this was the differentiating factor of the event," Griffiths said.
"But now, the recent change in alert levels has created further challenges for teams, especially those with team members and support crews based in Auckland.
"GodZone is certainly not the type of event that you can wing. The commitment and dedication to making the start line is a journey in itself and to be tripped in the final few days is tough."
GodZone event director Warren Bates said the event was planned with potential Covid restrictions in mind, and the organising team had been working closely with authorities to ensure the event can go ahead safely.
"Ultimately, we're committed to keeping New Zealand safe and will do whatever we can to make sure we operate safely by abiding by the restrictions in place.
"This means anyone currently still in Auckland won't be able to attend the event, which will be distressing for many teams to say the very least.
"Aucklanders who left before the Government's announcement can attend but will have to return a negative Covid-19 test as a prerequisite."
GodZone Chapter 9 will offer a glimpse into native New Zealand like no other and unlike the wide-open plains and rounded hills of much of the South Island where GodZone has traditionally been held, navigating it will take the endurance challenge to a new level.
"One of the benefits of being local is that we're very aware of the size and scale of things locally," Griffiths said.
"While a map of our extensive pine forests may show only four gravel roads, we know from experience that there could also be 180km of mountain biking tracks and forestry roads going to any number of skid sites."
GodZone competitors will only receive the course information the day before, so having the skills and experience to get to grips with the layout quickly will be imperative.
In our Element is mostly made up of Rotorua Lakes Council staff members, with the team name reflecting Rotorua's four main elements – earth, wind, fire and water.
In our Element has been training for more than a year individually and as a team.
"As part of our training missions, we've explored much of the surrounding area in ways that we normally never do," Griffiths said.
"We've had some great pack rafting and trekking trips around the lakes, heading off after work for five-hour pack rafting trips that end up including a number of lakes, like Tarawera, Okataina and Okareka."
Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said just like the GodZone course itself, the road to this point had not been straight forward.
"We are continuing to adapt to the significant impact of the pandemic and I extend my condolences to those who won't be able to compete this year," she said.
"I know everyone on the ground has been working hard to deliver a fantastic event while ensuring strict adherence to Covid-19 safety measures. I commend them for their resilience and tenacity.
"There's a reason Rotorua was chosen as the first location outside of the South Island to host GodZone. We have a unique and spectacular environment that will challenge racers and a community that is renowned for its manaakitanga in hosting visitors and delivering successful events."
Supporters wishing to follow the race can do so via the GodZone website in real-time where GPS tracking will be broadcast throughout the event.