Nathan Faavae's Team Seagate double win
Nathan Faavae and his Team Seagate win two major races back to back. Nathan's report gives a warts and all story of the toughness of endurance racing. Keywin is proud to be the team's pedal sponsor.
Africa to Australia
In May / June New Zealand's highest ranked adventure racing Team Seagate (Nathan Fa'avae, Sophie Hart, Stuart Lynch, Chris Forne) travelled to South Africa for round two of the Adventure Racing World Series, then went direct to Australia for the premiere event across the Tasman, the GeoQuest. Team captain Nathan Fa'avae reports.
I'm sure most people would agree that Africa is a place of mystique and adventure, truly wild animals, vibrant and dynamic cultures, life on a big continent rich in history and dramatic natural environments. It was along those lines that appealed to the team to select the Expedition Africa to add to our race season, the chance to travel through the mighty land. The timing also worked well as we were coming from a NZ summer when we are naturally fit from an active few months, plus we'd won round one of the world series in NZ at the Godzone Adventure in March, so we still had race conditioning in our systems, or so we told ourselves.
Stu had been to China racing in the Kiwi Red Bull team, Chris had been chasing the NZ Orienteering events, Sophie and I had kept fit training for the Portage race and doing some adventures.
Two weeks prior to our departure though I was hit with some bad news that threatened to prevent me from heading overseas to race. Some people know, some don't, I have battled through a couple of heart conditions throughout my career, having had two corrective surgeries in 2001 and 2005. I've enjoyed almost 10-years of health and a heart that has beat as one would hope. But as I lay in the emergency department watching my heart rate on the monitors going spasmodically with alarms sounding and things around me beeping like crazy, I seriously doubted my ability to race, or if I wanted to race.
A few days later further tests diagnosed me with atrial flutter, atrial fibrillation and two types of ectopic beats, my heart felt like someone learning to play the drums inside my chest, very badly. The result left me incredibly fatigued, mainly because I couldn't sleep well but it also severely limited my ability to train. While it's more annoying than worrying, when ones heart is not behaving there can be a few moments that make you wonder … ‘is this it?'
The darkest moment was when I got back from a run where I'd suffered some heavy chest pain, something I'd never experienced before, forced to walk home, barely able to make it without stopping. I felt sick, completely weak and wondered if something serious was happening, or had happened. Jodie my wife was away and that night I decided I had to inform my kids what was going on, that should they find me no longer alive in the morning they knew what to do. It sounds like an overreaction now but at the time what was happening was deeply concerning. The kids took it really well and assured me they'd have it under control should such a situation arise, hardy lot they are. All I could think was “There is no way I can go to Africa”.
But life's a funny old game, and the next day I woke feeling rather chipper and the kids and I spent the day climbing a mountain. Based on very little logic, I do have an unwavering belief in my ability to race when the time comes and I started to believe, no matter how bad things were now, was that I'd be okay to race. I informed the team as to what was happening and we all agreed it was worth the risk, I'd race and we'd just deal with whatever happened should it happen.
I'd made some healthy life style changes plus I was taking two medications which I had faith would make a difference. Despite living in with an irregular heart beat and against the instructions from my cardiologist, I got ready and boarded the flight to Africa, bound for the two events. A friend asked me prior to departure “Aren't you afraid of dying?”. My reply, “No, I'm only afraid of not living”.
As I stood at the check in counter at Emirates airline listening to the staff member give us a ridiculous reason why they charge $100 per kilo for additional baggage, I started to wish I had stayed home. The result was we had to leave 30kg of race equipment in NZ. Emirates just lost four future customers.
I was eagerly awaiting the rest days we had planned pre race, 4-days in Port Edward before the race started. I felt sleep was going to be the best cure for me, the previous months I'd been burning both ends of the candle and I needed to recover.! The race itself was exciting. It was a 500km plus expedition race that involved kayaking, trekking and mountain biking. When we arrived on the Wild South Coast we felt at home, the beach, ocean and impressive surf rolling in, daily dolphin sitings. The other attraction for us was there was a strong international field and we wanted a testing race as part of our build up to the World Champs. The South African teams are always to be respected so we knew we'd be in for a challenge.
The sunshine, warm air and water was a great retreat and I found myself recovering well and a few days before the race my heart returned 100% to normal rhythm, a highly pleasing outcome for me and it removed a lot of the stress I was feeling leading into the race, anxiety about having heart issues during the event.
We enjoyed a superb few days doing some light training and a leisurely build up to the race. One entertaining session we had to do was spend a few hours with a local child teaching them to kayak, we had a 15-year old girl Mbali, I think she loved it and also appreciated the fact we didn't take her directly out into the huge surf as some teams did, it was carnage for a period and a few people were injured. Perhaps the highlight of our pre race build up was when Robbie, a local mountain biker whose family own the finest coffee bean growing farm on the continent, the Beaver Creek Coffee Estate, gave us a tour of the local bike trails and then a tour of the coffee factory, ending at the tasting cafe, the fact I couldn't drink any was made up for by the team who had four each, Sophie even stating that it was the best coffee she had ever had. By the time race day rolled around we were ready to go.
40-teams gathered on the start line for an 11km ocean paddle that required us to punch out through some fair sized shore break and an equally big surf landing at the other end.
Keen to avoid the devastation we knew was inevitable with 80-kayaks racing off a beach, we sprinted off the start and got clear with team Merrell, one of the top local teams. Less than an hour of paddling up the stunning rocky coastline in nice size swell we started to line up the beach landing. Sophie and I were sitting on the edge of the break zone about to go when Stu and Chris pulled up alongside, not keen to share a wave I said to Sophie to hold and we'll let them go first, we'll get the next wave. The next wave though reared up vertical and we were in the wrong place given we were on a very short, plastic sit on kayak (considered a family beach toy in NZ - not a racing kayak). We got nailed. Still a few hundred metres off shore I knew it was important to stay with the kayak but it was ripped from me. Then I hit the sea floor, truly worked in big surf. It took quite a bit longer to surface than I wished, the white room holding me but eventually allowing me air, gasping at the surface. Amazingly, I came up right by the kayak and Sophie was there, we grabbed the boat and then got smashed by the next wave, this time managing to hold onto it. Once the wave eased we quickly remounted only to get wiped out by the next wave, this time Sophie lost hold of the kayak but managed to grab me and we all tumbled closer to shore inside the wave. Another remount and we managed to surf one wave to the beach, recovering a slither of pride. Chris and Stu had a similar tale to tell. After a few kilometres up a river we landed to start the next leg.
Leading the race we ran and climbed our way through a 12km stage, some trails and riverbed travel. The day was warming up and the scenery in the canyon was really pretty, we also passed quite a lot of baboons who were barking like dogs. The Swedish Team Hagloffs / Silva who won the race in 2013, caught us as did Team Merrell. We finished the stage together and then it was back to the boats.
A 5km sprint down river saw the three teams sharing the lead to the next transition area.
This was one of the big stages in the race, an 80km hiking stage. Another top South Africa team Painted Wolf and top USA team Technu arrived in the transition area at the same time so we knew we needed a lightening fast transition to get out on course ahead. One strength of our team is navigation so we don't want teams benefiting from our skill set by traveling with us, we wanted to get clear and on our own. Our route to the first checkpoint wasn't the best and Painted Wolf took the lead but we caught them an hour into the stage after a stunning but difficult run along the coast.
There was an abseil that was predicted to create a bottleneck so we wanted to be leading through that, which we did. The abseil was not a highlight of the race, we thought it was a bit dangerous and went through the forest at the end, tangling the ropes and generally creating a mess. I got tangled in a tree, free hanging and then my safety device jammed as a result, it took at about 5-minutes of brute strength to hold my body weight in one hand so I could slacken rope enough to remove my prussic. It was hard work and the lower part of the abseil I had to fight through barbed vines that ripped and tore my skin, blood oozing from the damage.
By the bottom I could feel my heart pounding significantly harder than what I ever hoped it would in the race, thankfully it didn't seem to trigger any arrhythmias.
The day started to cool off, setting sun as we jogged into our first night. The navigation options were bountiful and kept Chris engaged. Due to the terrain we ran a lot and by about 4am we started to feel a lot more jaded than normal, perhaps the time zone still having an effect.
The terrain was very spartan, lots of small farms and villages. Then we started to pass a lot of tea farms. Despite it being a hot day and we welcomed the sun setting, it was now a cool night and we wanted to stop for a sleep, we noted that between the tea trees it was dry and likely warmer so we bunked down for an hour sleep (90-minute rest). While we couldn't be sure, we assumed we were in the lead. We'd been moving fast and navigating well. After a nap we felt refreshed and it wasn't long until sunrise which was motivating also. It'd been a long night with 13-hours of darkness. We were all quite surprised how sore our feet were so early in the race but we had nearly ran 100km so I guess that'll do it. We did have quite large packs also, starting the stage with about 24-hours of food, a lot of fluid and other gear, plus we were lugging our climbing gear with us.
Described as a Canyoneering stage, this was just an extension of the previous stage truth be known, we just happened to drop into a river bed and travel down it for 10km to the end of the stage. It was extremely slippery and slow travel, often wading in waist deep water. While it was really pretty in places, the greasy surface started to get a bit tedious so I welcomed the end of the stage and was ready to ride my bike, a sentiment shared by the whole team I think.
With bikes ready to go Chris plotted the route and off we rode, starting with a vertical climb from the coast up onto the highlands, which sit around 1000-metres. The 120km ride passed through villages and even a small town which was a bonus, as we were able to stop at a shop, buy some cold drinks and hot food, a luxury in the world of adventure racing. While we were not told any information about the leaderboard, we'd overhead a media person say we had a few hours lead, possibly up to four hours, which we suspected could be the case, given we'd had a 90-minute rest already, that put us in a strong position. As the ride ticked by we discovered that African road builders do not like or wish to build zig zags, instead they will push roads vertical up steep hills, dead straight, it made for very taxing riding. Once again we welcomed the sunset and were treated to some red skies one would only expect to see in Africa. By the early hours of the morning sleep deprivation started to slow our progress so we decided to pull over and sleep for another hour. We found a small dusty clearing to the side of the road and spread out in that. We'd been warned not to sleep in the field for safety reasons, mainly risk of theft of our equipment so we stopped away from any villages and keep our gear close, but saying that we always felt safe as we went through the course. The ride ended with a long descent to the river.
Unfortunately due to dry weather the 67km river kayak was shortened to 20km, it was about 3am when we launched into the river and made our way back to the coast. It was cold night with extremely thick fog, which made it close to impossible to see. Our ultra bright Gloworm lights were reflecting off the fog. There was a faint current and we worked hard to make sure we were in fact travelling downstream, a few times it was hugely confusing and the risk of paddling around in a circle and back up stream was a small but possible threat. The tide was also coming in which created some swirling currents towards the end of the paddle. It was a really cold night.
The final hike was 40km, a mixture of coastal trails and hinterland village paths. The stage started at a resort so we'd taken the chance to bank another 90-minute sleep, this time in a tent with blankets and warmth. We got the impression we had a comfortable lead but were not given any solid information. We got a little complacent I think as we moved through the stage, we also knew the ninth and final stage was going to be a mammoth. We saw two major route options for the stage, an inland route and a coastal route. I don't know what was faster but we opted for the inland route, we just felt the coastal route could be risky, we didn't know enough about the area to be sure we could get around the coastline. We hiked into another night and arrived at the final transition, investing time in a hot meal, plotting the maps and getting another 90-minute sleep. Just as our alarms were about to wake us we were woken by the Swedish team who had arrived at the TA. We got up to discover that team Technu were there also. This took us a little bit by surprise, we hadn't seen a team for days and all of a sudden the three lead teams were all in the same TA with one stage remaining. While in real terms we still had a decent lead because you couldn't clear that TA fast, I think it added some pressure to us which was valuable learning, a few cracks appeared in our typically robust armour.
Riding through darkness into the 230km mountain bike stage we were race focused again, we'd led the race unchallenged for days and we didn't want to lose it in the final stage.
Adding adversity to what are already endurance tasks of suffering and discomfort, a few illnesses started to enter the equation, likely a result of contaminated water, it was really difficult to find clean drinking water on the course. At different times all of us were suffering illness in some form and the result was we simply were not moving fast. We knew though that no team will be flying through a ride of this length towards the end of a race, we just needed to be steady and we'd win the race.! We made a few judgement errors in navigation for the first time in the race.
For me personally the final 24-hours was in no way enjoyable. After the sleep we'd had in the TA I woke to find my heart was not beating correctly which immediately drops my physical ability. I was uncomfortable on the bike, was suffering from stomach cramps and diarrhoea, and the ride was relentlessly going on and on and on, I started to find it mind numbing boring and resolved to staring at my bike computer watching the distance clock over, 10k, 20k, 30k, 40k …. finically it said 200km, 210km, 220km …! I don't think we were working together as a team very well for a period and our speed of travel was losing efficiency, a few disagreements and words exchanged, Sophie gave me a berating at one stage whichever at least gave me something to think about for a while. It was a little window into how we can respond to pressure which I think will serve us well in future, where we can expect much closer and tighter racing.
The highlight for me in the end was when Robbie from the coffee farm rode out to meet us and joined up for the final 40km or so, having his company broke the monotony of the ride and I started to enjoy myself. We'd seen a glorious sunrise and the end was near, stopping, healthy food, washing and bed to sleep in. Sometimes the day after a race is the best reason to endure the previous 3 or 4 days of adversity.
Yahoo, we made it, first. Finishing a race is always a huge relief, winning speeds up the recovery. I was wasted in every sense of the word, I'd been ill for 24-hours, racing for 80-hours with about 5- hours sleep. While I done my best to deny it, my heart had been playing up a lot in the final stage. I couldn't get to the shower and my bed fast enough. My heaven on earth for the next 15-hours. While we had a few things to improve on, we had a lot of celebrate. We'd won the race and made a lot of sensible decisions along the way, Chris had been deadly accurate on the maps and Stu had supported him well in that role. Sophie had another strong race only wavering a couple times when lack of sleep haunted us.
Overall, we enjoyed the experience, it was a super well organised event and one we were glad to have taken part in. The course had some amazing sections and many points of interest, it gave us a really good taste and feel for that region. It was the African Adventure we'd expected.
Next stop was Sydney, the goal Geo Quest. The Geo Quest is the premiere adventure race in Australia with a long history. It's a race we'd been keen to do for a while and it just happened to be on a few days after we were passing through Australia on the way home. Chris needed to return to New Zealand for work so we invited Kiwi athlete Jacob Roberts, who is currently based in Australia to join us. Thankfully he was keen. While the race was expected to take the winning team 25-30 hours, we were concerned and aware that racing so soon after Africa could have dire consequences. Most people will agree it takes 4-6 weeks to recover from an expedition race, some may even say as little as 3-weeks. Some freaks may say 2-weeks. We had 10-days.
We knew there was no way we'd be racing at 100%, but we hoped we'd be able to do enough to be competitive and still have a shot at winning the race, that was our goal.
Stu, Sophie and I picked up a rental car and travelled to Cresent Head, the host township, about 6- hours north of Sydney. We had a little over 3-days to adjust and rest. I was sick travelling to Australia with really bad stomach problems, with a cold mixed in for good measure. With some treatment from Dr Hart, quality rest and light training, each day I started to improve and felt better about racing. While no one felt great, we felt okay to line up for the event. Jacob arrived and reminded us how good it was to have someone new joining the team, his strength and freshness was critical to our success. The day before the race we also met our support crew Rhett and Liz who had travelled up from Sydney to help us.
There were 50-teams making up a full field, while we didn't know the teams very well, we were told that 4-5 teams were capable of winning and the media told us a few times that a few of the Australian teams didn't rate us with a chance, confident they'd beat us, that was motivating too.
The first stage was meant to be a 20km ocean kayak but due to high winds was changed to a mountain bike stage. It was a mixture of road and sand tracks. Our plan was to start off easy and see how the day unfolded, we were not keen to set the pace. Much to our delight the first ride was quite a sedate pace making it an enjoyable ride, we finished the stage leading with team Mountain Designs.
The team had to split for a rogaine, a total of 8km. Sophie and I took the shorter run loop that included a few hundred metre sea swim, while Jake and Stu did the longer run. When we met back at the end we had a lead going onto the next ride.
A 22km mountain bike again on sand trails and some road. Stu hadn't felt great on Stage 2 and was keen to ease up, we were passed by Mountain Designs and caught by Peak Adventure. We were starting to worry for Stu, it was early on in the race to be suffering this much. Our fears of not recovering enough from Africa were playing out, Sophie and I taking some relief in that it wasn't us landed crook. Despite the slow pace we managed to stay in second place.
Next up was an 11km trail and beach run, through some nice forest and coastal tracks. We saw quite a lot of kangaroo and the final few kms was a slog on the beach. This is where Stu started to dig a big deep nasty hole and climb into it. After running on soft sand and under hot sun for close to 30-minutes Sophie and I started to feel pretty average ourselves, things weren't looking flash.
Next up was a quirky orienteering relay where each team member had to do a leg solo. The benefit of this was Stu would get to rest. I headed off first choosing what I thought was the most difficult control. I then handed the map to Jacob, giving him the furthest distance to run. I guessed it could take him up to ten minutes, given he is a self confessed non-navigator. After ten minutes he wasn't back, nor after 20, or even 30.
The great thing was we were getting excellent rest, especially Stu who had laid down and managed to get some fluid and food on board. Jake turned up clearly annoyed after running ten times more than he needed too. Stu, then Sophie got their controls and we were away. I was happy, I'd had two cups of tea, but also to much idle time. I foolishly decided to inflate the raft Sophie and I needed to cross the river on the next bike stage. I soon discovered that riding with a raft strapped to ones backpack works like a parachute, I was going nowhere so we needed to stop to deflate it.
Despite now being nearly an hour behind the leaders and in 5th place, we did our best to reassure Jake not to worry about it, his navigation blow out had given us valuable recovery, we felt a lot better and we had a lot of racing to go. We had a 30km mountain bike ride, with a raft section in the middle. We had to carry small rafts, paddles and pfd's on our bikes to cross a river. The raft was 700-metres, somewhat comical with us jammed into a tiny boat, two people and two bikes in each. We ended the ride in 4th but had pulled back some time to the teams ahead.
Reaching the TA we dropped bikes for an 8km rogaine. We needed to get 6 of the 7-controls. This stage was through thick forest in many places, not nice forest to travel through, a lot of time pushing through spikes and thorns, but it wasn't for long so we just pushed through it.!
Back on bikes for a further 17km to the TA, mainly downhill on good forest roads.
Launching into a river on dark we paddled about 5km to a take out where we had to portage the kayaks for a few km's (very hard work). Then it was back into the river for another 5km. We were sitting in fourth place now, slowly catching the teams ahead.
Getting off the water we were cold but with a 45km bike ahead of us and uphill to start with we knew we'd soon warm up. We climbed our way up to the forest to another bike drop for another navigation stage. We had moved into third with just Outer Limits and Peak Adventure in front of us. Midway through the ride the road deteriorated and became a bush bash. After 30-minutes of carrying our bikes through forest we arrived in a riverbed only to see headlights of 2-teams descending towards us. It was the leading teams. We exited the riverbed pushing through forest to meet a road. Now leading the race our next task was to try and drop these teams, never an easy feat but we needed to start looking for opportunities. We reached the road with the other teams on our heels. It was a little confusing as to where exactly we were. The control was on a road, riverbed intersection and I knew the river was to our left. I could see the other teams were a little confused too so I said to Stu I'll ride down the road and see what's around the corner. Rounding the corner I saw the control so I clipped it and returned back to the others, reporting I'd seen nothing and that we'd best look up the road in the other direction. All three teams started up the road heading away from the control. I whispered to my team I had the control so when the time came we turned and bolted. The next thing we were on our own and away.
This stage was an 11km rogaine, with a twist, we only were given a map to the first control. Once there we'd see the map for the next control and so on, so starting the stage we didn't know how many controls there were. Before we could start though, we needed to shoot some archery. We needed to get 5-arrows on the target before we could leave, Jake and Stu are not planning to take up archery anytime soon I don't think. Stu did a superb job of night navigation through this stage.
Back on bikes for a further 29km. We were making good progress through the night. It felt good to be the leading team now with the finish closing in. We had never stressed about being back in the rankings, we had just focused on the areas we could make up time that didn't require huge energy reserves. Now in front, we knew how to keep applied pressure making it extremely difficult for a team to catch us and close to impossible to pass us. We sped down the hill on bikes to another raft crossing. As we started riding again we spotted Outer Limits arriving at the rafts, about 10-15 minutes behind us we guessed. After getting very soaked it was only 4km to the end of the stage.
A 15km river paddle with a portage in the middle was a distance we could paddle hard for. There was also a special prize for the fastest team in this stage so we went for that. Daylight was just breaking so it was really refreshing paddling with the sun rising, we were leading the race and the end was ever so near.
We exited the kayak and onto the final stage, an 11km run, mainly through sand dunes and along the beach. It was a great feeling powering to the end knowing we'd be finished soon and that we'd be claiming victory. The race hadn't been an easy one, we'd had to overcome a few obstacles and adjust to things along the way. It felt satisfying that despite all the things we'd gone through in the previous 24-hours, that we were going to walk away with the win. The race had been a good test for us and we'd passed it. We'd worked really well as a team, the athletes and support crew, never giving up hope and always striving for our best possible outcome.
The Geo Quest is a really good race for Kiwi teams to consider. It's long enough to use expedition racing skills and the best thing is it's warm climate, a perfect way to get away from the start of the NZ winter. It's a great event to tick off.
Thanks to our team sponsors:
Seagate, Rocky Mountain Bicycles, GU Energy,
Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dry Meals, Antichafe,
Patagonia Clothing, inov-8 footwear, Endura Eyewear,
Louis Garneau Helmets, Revelate Designs, Gloworm Lighting, Tineli, Wildside Travel, Bridgedale Socks, Wind Paddle,
Keywin Pedals, Xinix and Nathan's personal sponsor: