Tasmanian devilry

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

December 10 2011
James Henderson

I knew immediately I awoke this morning that I was not in the UK. Rather than the demure tweeting of British birds, a cackling and a raucous carry-on lanced my unconsciousness. I begin to rationalise, slowly. Ah, Tasmania, and yes, another day of extreme activity. Day four, the Hartz Mountains, hiking, mountain biking – an incredibly long downhill, apparently – ropes and more mountain biking, and then paddling. As I try to sit up, every muscle in my wracked frame groans in complaint.

We have spent two nights in tents to the south of Hobart, strategically placed for the south-eastern corner of the island. Ryan the young whippet and I pack our kit boxes (different equipment needs to be sent to the start of the various legs) and then we set off. The field is 60 now, as five new teams joined us on Bruny Island to compete for three days of the Challenge. We line up on a misty forest track. At the sound of a fog horn, we follow one another, trotting along a forest track.

Ten minutes later all 60 of us are standing in a clearing looking for the track. If there is one thing vital in adventure racing, it is route-finding. You can be as fit as you like, but in an off-road course you have to get your navigation spot on. Time is lost, and then standings in the rankings. There are urgent voices as team members confer and then false starts as lines of people follow each other one way and back again. And eventually we all retrace our steps to an obscured junction in the path. It was marked in fact, but everyone ran past in their enthusiasm to get moving.

And so the hiking leg begins properly and the forest closes around us again. Grasses explode at the pathside, logs lay in wait for us and bushes grasp at us as we pass. Already after an hour of sweat and grime I can feel that the night’s sleep has made precious little difference. Depletion has become exhaustion and my body will be sucking at energy faster than I can take it in.

But these races have their rhythms and 30 minutes later we zoom downhill on the mountain bikes, covering 12 kilometres in barely more minutes. Life doesn’t feel so painful. Until the next hill, which is some seven kilometres long and utterly, utterly brutal.

The psychological balance is strangely on edge at the physical limits. You cannot let yourself get down, but it’s hard not to groan as the road soars off steeply into the distance. And exhaustion has strange effects. The theme tune to Match of the Day, mentioned earlier in the day, locks into my mind and repeats itself over and over again.

In the heat I begin to feel dozy. I know if I stopped the bike and lay down I would fall asleep in an instant. I have forgotten all normal things, people’s names, the day of the week. I realise, momentarily, that I cannot even remember which country I am in. My focus is reduced to one simple thing: the location of the next checkpoint, on a bridge over the Weld River. When we arrive, we check the map and we keep pushing for the next one. Eventually we get there. Satisfaction, food, rest.

The “spectacular” today was an abseil from an aerial walkway. We clambered along the supporting gantry to a point under a cantilevered platform (from where most visitors get a lovely view of the Huon River). Hitching onto a 130ft, free-hanging rope, we slid down into the trees. The final leg was also a bit of fun. Instead of paddling on the sea, we were on a river, with small rapids every few hundred yards. We scooted down them, capsizing twice, and then paddled and paddled to the finish line.

Tomorrow is the final day, which is set around Hobart and has a rather different format. We have six hours to visit as many of the checkpoints as we can, using the usual modes of transport – mountain bike, running and kayak – and no doubt there will be a few surprises then too.