Maestro of improvisation or is 36 gels enough to complete Coast 2 Coast?

The story of this race starts well before the actual date it took place. 

Twenty years ago, when I had just started adventure racing and it was still all very new to me, months before an upcoming event, I was carefully assessing every piece of equipment to the best of my ability, making sure it was all correct and exactly as required. 

The number of races had increased to a frequency of almost 1 per week at some stages and it was handy to have all equipment maintained and ready to go at all times.

I was picking and organising adventure gear from the garage on the morning before the events and it had become second nature, like packing your backpack or bag before work, making sure you had your wallet and phone etc…

Coast to Coast is very cool multisport event in New Zealand, with thousands of racers and many different options to sign up for. It has been running for 35 years and the organisation had polished all aspects of the event. An attractive feature of this popular event, is the fact that all the elite athletes attend every year. 

So, inspired by Maria’s 2017 effort, I was keen and up for the challenge, but unfortunately by the time I had made up my mind in late December (the race usually being held on the second weekend in February), event was sold out. 

In early January, when I was scouting some remote area for the upcoming X-Marathon, Maria texted me asking if I was interested in a tandem 2-day entry for Coast to Coast.  I replied ‘yes’.   

day 1 river crossing

The time then came to begin organising the Alpine Quest event and I did not have time to think about it much more after that.  Luckily, a boat had already been arranged as a part of the entry. As soon as Maria got an entry, I had bought soft racks, so that we were able to transport the kayak on the roof of any vehicle and had booked flights to Christchurch. 

Preparation of Alpine Quest had left all gear disassembled and unorganised, and cars not booked until very late.  Despite this, we managed to get everything sorted out the day before the flight and I was still up, packing and checking all of the gear until 3am that morning. 

It was quite a challenge to get everything sorted, but was a relief and very pleasing feeling when we were finally on the plane with all our gear packed, and could enjoy some time doing almost nothing (although still looking after a very active, 3 and a half year old boy!)

We arrived at midnight, picked our cars up at 1am and made our way to our accommodation for the night. 

The following morning was hectic – get gels (How many? Well, let’s say 36?), pick up boat, load all the gear into the two cars and then drive across the island to make the 7pm cut-off for gear checks. Luckily we had Myall and Josh on the case, helping out and we made it to Kumara by 6pm, which left us about 1 hour to do all the gear checks. Once they were all done, we were ready for some dinner and then, finally, some sleep.

Alex Lark rode by bike from the North Island, 400km, to meet us at Kumara to look after our little boy. This was a wonderful thought having him looking after Sasha. Lark has three kids of his own, the youngest around 3 years old, so he has the knowledge and experience in how to handle these little devils.

I borrowed a bike from Josh Roy, who was a member of our support crew. I thought it was a good idea to try it before the event the next day, so to get a feel for the bike, I rode for a couple of kilometres and made some adjustments. I was so thankful to Josh for this bike, I absolutely loved it! I was also very thankful to Jarad Kohlar, who lent us his racing wheels to put on the road bike that Maria and I shared.

We didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, as we had an early start the following morning. 

In the morning we ran off from Kumara beach, sprinting like it was school 100m champs. Maria got a good 30m on me right from the start, but luckily the tempo dropped and I soon caught up to her. Then we jumped on the bikes and groups started to form. I had never planned to lead, but as it happens, you just find yourself at the front sometimes. That was over the first 15km or so, that I was close to the front or leading, but then the stronger team riders joined the group and I dropped back. 

We were around 5km out of TA, when Maria finally dropped back, not being able to keep up the pace lifted by the team riders. We dropped back together and another mixed tandem pair was riding along with us. We made it to the TA, did a quick change and we are off running again.

I felt very strong, but, luckily, could not tow too much during the first part, because our tow rope was a bit too short for that technical track. Then came the rocks, and Maria showed off at her best there. I was very impressed with her ability to push through those rocks. I am usually significantly stronger on foot than her, but not there. I have forgotten already how good it is to race with her, and that my best teammate ever happened to be my wife and best friend as well…

 day 2 first ride fresh legs

We pushed through that run, passing millions of other runners. The couple who had arrived with us to TA from the bike (we call them “the Slim”), passed us on the first part, but then dropped back on those rocks. We were on a high!

I was hungry and had ran out of gels. Maria had only one left. A girl we were running past looked at me and gave me an almost full quish, she just started to eat, saying – ‘it's okay, if you want it’. I did not say anything before, but was very grateful to have it. Even Maria had a bite. Quish on top of Arthurs Pass was gold! Thanks to the unknown young lady, I was confident I could keep that pace then!

Well, not for a long. When there was about 8km to go, my inner quads started to cramp. I managed to keep up Maria’s pace, but was not able to contribute any more. 

Now you understand why it was lucky I could not tow that first part ☺. Well, as everything comes to an end, so did my cramps, and we pushed through the last few K’s to the finish. The first day was done. The Slim came in about a minute behind us, leaving us 2ndmixed tandem pair and 5thor 6thoverall. We were quite happy with that and were very confident day 2 would be a winner for us. We were ready to fight for that first place back!

Camping at Сlondyke Corner is nice. You are surrounded by mountains, it is spectacular! At the same time you are camping with another 1000-odd like-minded people. The camping site is a massive field and was covered by tents, bikes and kayaks. The multisport camping.

We were having good time, it was evening and we were having dinner, then all of a sudden, a wise idea came to Maria’s mind. Should there not be kayak-specific jackets for the paddle??? I’m pretty sure there should! Our superlight gore-tex racing jackets would not qualify, as they did not have neoprene sleeves. Alex made a few calls and Myall went up to organisers to get two brand new Rasdex jackets. It was 7pm, the night before a 5AM start and gear checks, in the middle of the mountain range, here they are. Improvisation was always one of our strong sides.

On the morning of the second day we could not find two matching jerseys. Not to worry, we had two matching cycling vests, however, we did not find sunscreen. We never worried about such minor things and focused on the big ones. The biggest one was to get those sore bodies of ours to the start and do not miss it. 

Start was quite late, as apparently those with a slower time on Day 1 start earlier than the faster ones. We were almost at the very back and started our vicious 15km ride to the kayak start. It went down really well, unlike one day competitors, we had to run with our bikes down to TA. Easy job for an adventure racer.

Then we were in the massive, thick double kayak called Barracuda. “Impossible to fall in” ☺ The Slim guys were just in front of us, and slowly pulling away, as we were running through shallow parts, they seemed to be finding better line and paddling through. Surprise. Maria had demonstrated 5thfemale paddling time back in 2017 and we thought we should do well. Alas, not that well, as they were paddling away as we were running through the shallows.

day 2 paddling the barracuda

After a few paddle-run-paddle sections, where usually I would jump out, drag the boat and jump back in, our boat was quite full of water. I’m not putting spray skirt back on, as it takes too much time. All of a sudden, on a pretty simple flat spot, the boat leaned, getting side current in and we were not able to do anything to lift it back up. We were swimming. It was pretty embarrassing, as there were no rapids around. 

It took us a good 7-8 minutes to get to the shore and lift the boat to empty it. It was a massive bastard and very heavy when full of water. Good lesson to us, looking back at that I can say, this Barracuda had good primary stability, but almost no secondary, so when it leant over, no force could lift it back, particularly if there are a good 100 litres of water leaned to that side too. 

Anyway, we were back on track and had given up on our plan to outpaddle the Slim guys, and a few more mixed teams were in front of us by now. 

The gorge was spectacular. Needless to say, the river got deeper as it narrowed and there was no more need to run with the kayak. The rapids were quite interesting, it would be fun to tackle them on light fast boat, I thought. The Barracuda did not seem too bothered by those waves, except if you were in the middle of large, standing waves, then it would jump up and down and that was unpleasant. We soon figured out to keep our line closer to the centre, but on one or the other side. The paddle was going down well, although we developed quite big blisters and I was getting buggered towards the end. Maria kept strong. We ended up paddling quite well, considering our swim. 

We came out from the water in 5thmixed, which was quite bad, we could miss out, not only on our yesterday’s second, but the chance on the podium. I put down all I had and we were flying through the first 20km at 40+kph, passing pelotons of riders as if they were standing still. Everything comes to an end and my energy tank was fast reaching its end. Luckily, a group of team riders caught up with us and were offering some help in the front.

crooked at coast to coast finish

Maria came up to me, when I was in the front, and asked if was feeling well. I gave it a thought and then said “no”.  “Then f**ing get back and not go up”. So I did, and realised I’m in struggletown. Team riders were pushing an ok pace, considering we were riding into a strong headwind. Maria started to do some short shifts, so I started to as well, after getting my last 3 gels in. Then one of the team riders, who seemed to be a good road cyclist, came up to me and said I should stay back. So I did.

The guys brought the tempo up again and we lost most people from our group, there were three team riders remaining and us. We were hanging at the back, while three of them were putting pace higher and higher into the headwind. We managed to stay with the group till the very end, though, I was so cooked, that when jumping off the bike, I had to hang onto Maria’s shoulder to stay upright for the first few steps. 

There we were, two-day tandem finishers and we managed to get that podium position back – we claimed third! We showed the fastest ride out of all tandem teams that day, including all male teams. This goes to show how hard we rode and it paid off - the fourth mixed team was just 3 minutes behind.

A massive thank you to Maria, who had been an awesome teammate and that shoulder you can rely on, to Myall Quint and Josh Roy for getting us sorted in transitions, and to Alex Lark for entertaining our child for 2 days to the extent he did not want to come back to us. 

Happy racing!

coast to coast presentation