Tasmanian devilry

James Henderson reports from day two of the Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge, an epic five-day race that tests competitors to the limit.

December 08 2011
James Henderson

The Challenge is beginning to declare itself. The course designers like a “spectacular”, and so, on the morning of day two – after a boat ride under the cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula – 50 racers leapt off the boats and swam in to the beach where the kayaks were waiting. Then we paddled off to all points around Fortescue Bay.

The course designers like regular transitions, too. Today, after the kayaks, there was 90 minutes of hiking, followed by two hours on the mountain bike, then a run, followed by a second, rather breezier kayak leg, and a final run. Each time, there was an exchange of equipment, of footwear, and an intake of food.

The middle running section was in Port Arthur, the former penal settlement, to which the worst of the repeat offenders were sent. Its stone Georgian and Victorian buildings look very odd in Tasmania. The governor even imported English trees to make the place look like Blighty.

The fact that the race is divided into daily stages, even they are 12 hours long, makes the Mark Webber Challenge a fast-paced event (other adventure races are non-stop over five days and so necessarily competitors move more slowly). The racing snakes, the Elite teams, will run, up and down the hills, and an occasional mountain. They never stop, except to check their navigation, and they will sustain the maximum possible pressure, knowing at the same time that they mustn’t push themselves over the edge.

And the race is also quite complicated. The designers have set a series of compulsory sections, a linear course that all participants must follow. But then there are optional additional checkpoints which teams may collect (which offer time credits). It’s a balance of the benefit that can be accrued against the extra time that it will take – and the wear-down effect over the five days of the race. They are competing against one another, of course, so they must be bold.

Rick Kelly, who drives in the Australian V8 Supercars championship, has teamed up with Ryan Sandes, an extremely accomplished trail runner doing his first adventure race. (Both are sponsored by Red Bull independently.) They are pushing for perhaps sixth or seventh, so they need to take the risks, but also be canny.

“We’re never going to be beat the top guys, but we have done most of the extra legs in order to improve our standing. But we dropped the extra runs because it would hurt the body way too much.”

Further back in the field, runners will pick off just the occasional extra checkpoint to steal a march on other teams around them in the running order. And for those who are here to defeat the course, the obligatory checkpoints are a significant challenge under any circumstances. This is what I and my team mate – a young whippet by the name of Ryan Bailey – have decided to do. The best result for us will be to acquit ourselves well, to push hard and not to make any mistakes. Luck will play its part, too, but at six hours and 30 minutes to cover 53 kilometres, day two was a pleasant success.