Tasmanian devilry

The gruelling Mark Webber Challenge is about to kick off in Tasmania – and our intrepid reporter is among the competitors.

December 06 2011
James Henderson

I’m psyching myself up for a daunting physical test. For the next five days, the east coast of Tasmania will be the scene of the Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge 2011, where 25 teams of two athletes, myself among them, will pit ourselves against one another and the enormous terrain of Australia’s southern state. For six and more hours each day we will flog ourselves, kayaking, mountain biking and running, to defeat the course, and face the occasional surprise along the way – a sea swim here and a spectacular abseil there.

Fresh from his Brazilian Grand Prix win, the Australian Formula 1 driver Mark Webber himself will be competing on the first day. Normally he races every mile of every day, but this year he heads off to the podium at the FIA end-of-season awards ceremony in India – he took third place in the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship of course, and Red Bull Racing won the Constructors’ Prize.

“What I hope for is a safe event, with everyone getting through – intact,” says Webber. (This isn’t health and safety talking. He pauses because in 2008 he was racing so hard that he was involved in a mountain biking accident, and ended up breaking his leg. He managed to race the 2009 Formula 1 season, while being operated on in between Grand Prix.) “They’ll be tested,” he says. “There’ll be some questions they ask of themselves, and a few doubts that creep into their minds as the course stretches out ahead of them. Competitors are pretty insular in the first two days. But then the camaraderie develops. Characters pop out. And by the end I hope they’ve all had an absolute blast.” He looks around us, at the waterfront rocks and calm blue waters of Freycinet Bay. “It’ll be a cracking race.”

Which, oddly, is partly my worry. What I hope is that bits of me don’t crack under the strain, that the race doesn’t start with a small symphony of pinging noises as muscles and tendons snap. Certainly it’s a while since I have run any distance over mountains – most of my exercise nowadays takes place on a road bike [James Henderson’s From Desk Till Dawn article about the Cape Argus cycle tour in Cape Town will appear in the Friday edition of How To Spend It on December 9]. When I searched for my trainers in the garden shed recently, I found that a family of mice had moved in.

The course is truly daunting – 350 kilometres of extreme terrain – and there are some superb competitors in the field. Interestingly, though, in races such as these there is also an honourable constituency of people who are there to take part, to defeat the course. It’s about endurance and persistence, about putting up with the discomfort while keeping going – “bearability” is Webber’s word for it.

Getting to Tasmania itself was no small challenge to begin with – a gruelling 39 hours door to door – but if the island is absurdly far away, it is also ideally suited to events such as this. The wilderness is magnificent and near-limitless. Webber has staged his race here since 2003. There was a hiatus after 2008, but now it is back for three more years. Despite offers to stage the race elsewhere, he has stuck with Tasmania.

On day one tomorrow we will paddle the waters of Freycinet Bay, run through the delightfully named Hazard Mountains and bike to Friendly (well, hopefully friendly) Beaches, and then abseil off the massive exposed rocks of Mt Amos.

Back to Mark Webber: “Don’t forget to look up when you’re out on the course. It’s an awesome part of the world. You can’t do a race anywhere better, mate, really.”