Tasmanian devilry

As the gruelling Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge reaches day three, our reporter in the field James Henderson hits the leaden zone.

December 09 2011
James Henderson

Today I reached the leaden zone. After two days of rigorous exercise and physical depletion, we set off for the longest day so far. The Elite teams made it through in eight hours (having taken all the extra checkpoints along the way), but further back in the field it was more like 10 or 11 hours. You can feed and water yourself, and control your electrolyte intake all you like, but even the best conditioned athlete will be feeling the strain.

Day three’s course was set on Bruny Island. If it were possible to conceive of a place more remote than Tasmania, then this is it – a stretch of land that lies off Tasmania’s south-eastern coastline. It is exceptionally attractive, and of course has exceptional possibilities for a brutal adventure race course.

The day started with a 12-kilometre paddle across the channel – two hours that culminated in our inching into a howling headwind, boat slapping up and down on the swell – after which we set off on the first 35 of 68 kilometres of mountain biking. We covered much of the length of the island in the end, in three different biking sections. The day’s “spectacular” was the magnificent two-kilometre stretch of biking along the completely deserted Cloudy Beach, rollers crashing to our left. And today's trick was to work out how to get the bikes across a stretch of fast-moving water. Some small kayaks, large enough to carry us or the bikes, were on the far bank. Between the six of us that had arrived together, we worked out how to get everything across. Some of us had to swim, so that is what we did: stripped off and collected the kayaks we needed.

Mark Webber’s maxim about day three being the time when people start to gel is true. At the front of the field it may still be insular, but for other teams on the course it is an easy environment in which to give and to receive, an inner tube here or a steer to the checkpoint there. Teams help one another, chat as they kayak along, get to know one another. Mutual regard in mutual adversity. It’s one of the best aspects of races like these.

The core of day three was the hike, which ran through a magnificent coastal forest. This was the most rigorous section we have had so far, 10 kilometres through greenery so thick it was worthy of a tropical rainforest. Ferns cascaded onto the path, undergrowth scrambled and clambered into overgrowth and the tall trees soared. We could see the forest in action, as it dies and regenerates. Trees have simply crashed across the path, where a woodsman has cut a path through them. At one stage we skirted along a tree trunk that was more than 200 feet long, its back broken in the fall, two massive pieces of wood set uncomfortably next to one another. Already it was degenerating, bark soft and spongy as it began to mulch. We knew there were snakes about, but it was a leech that struck first. It attached itself to my team-mate’s leg and then let go, leaving a trail of blood down his calf.

It was close in the forest, hot and sweaty, which just added to the gradually building discomfort. We had been tramping for nearly two hours (after exerting other muscle groups in the kayak and on the bike), jogging where we could, hopping over tree trunks, clambering under broken branches. My breathing had been laboured for five hours as I tried to suck in the oxygen that my body needed to continue. I had fed it isotonic drinks and quick-absorbing sugars, but I knew that I was tiring and slowing up.

And then the leaden zone. We emerged from the deep forest, thinking we were near the end of the stretch. But, as so often in these races, there was a sting in the tail. The path switch-backed remorselessly upwards, steep enough to slip on each step. Now my breathing was harder than before, my legs would barely do what they were told and my head began to swim. I put my hands on my knees to rest for a moment. Part of me told me I wanted this to stop. But another part won out. More than that, I wanted to get to the end of this section.