Tasmanian devilry

As the Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge gets under way, James Henderson, our man in the field (and in the kayak and on the bike), gives a first-hand account of day one of this merciless five-day race.

December 07 2011
James Henderson

At events such as these, the tension builds with the arrival of so many fit and purposeful-looking people. Then, at the race briefing, it ratchets up a notch as the enormity of the task is revealed. But at this year’s Mark Webber Challenge, details of the actual start were held back from us until the very last moment, five minutes before the 7.30am start.

And so at the whistle, the 25 teams all sprinted off in different directions, orienteering-style, to collect checkpoints around the Freycinet Bay Lodge Hotel. The final checkpoint was attached to a buoy in the bay, so one member of each team took an early dip. Next, we all loaded into kayaks and headed out into glass-flat, incredibly blue water, for a nine-kilometre paddle. Tasmania has favoured us. I’ve rarely had such a superb day for kayaking.

Adventure racing is something like an off-road triathlon, in which the course and the disciplines are fitted to the terrain. And so, as with triathlons, there are hectic transition areas, followed by – in this race – hours of graft in the Tasmanian backwoods. We hopped out of the kayaks, stowed gear, grabbed water, bike equipment and a few energy gels and then we were into the forest for nearly 30 kilometres of mountain biking. This was Mark Webber’s favourite moment: “It was just brilliant to have everyone so close together. And yeah, just an absolute reminder that yep, the race is on, everyone’s here.”

At one stage, in a moment of, er, geographical embarrassment, my race partner and I ended up meeting bike pairs roaring past the other way. It’s impressive to see the top of the field at work; they are competing in the Elite category, riding aggressively downhill and attacking the slopes. Webber himself is among them – and it is clear that he applies the same discipline to his pleasure as he does to his day job as a Formula 1 driver.

And, as with any good adventure race, the course is fiendishly designed, expressly in order to test us. After the bike section, legs and lungs nicely depleted in one way, we set off up the 454 granite-strewn metres of Mount Amos, and competitors could barely lift their legs to climb. On such a hot day, it was merciless. Which made it a relief to slide down the rockface on the abseil – a fantastic descent of broken slabs and small overhangs.

Even after one day, the race is beginning to declare itself as competitors show their form. In Webber’s words: “You can see already the strengths and weaknesses coming out, where some people are good on the climbs but not on the descents. And yeah, just an absolutely sensational reminder why I love doing those things.”

The finish to the first day’s race was a kayak crossing of two bays, picking up more checkpoints along the coast – we flogged the final six kilometres and dragged our kayaks onto the beach at the finish line at four in the afternoon (at the rather nice looking Saffire Hotel – it seemed a terrible pity not to be trying it out).

We had spent eight and a half hours working hard in the sun and it seemed like a good long day. But tomorrow is reputed to be even longer. Not least because of the 4am breakfast and the transfer to the race start near Port Arthur, Tasmania’s penal settlement. We’ll be starting with a swim from a boat to our kayaks on the beach.