Tasmanian devilry

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

December 11 2011
James Henderson

The Challenge has kept us focused so intensely for the past five days that it is a little hard to understand that it is finished. Feelings come strangely confused. Initially there is an overwhelming physical relief, to be able to stop, to let up on the constant demand to push and push, of asking desperately tired muscles to go again and again and again. Then into the frame comes a lighter feeling, of having faced a challenge and won. And gradually I look around and see all the faces, whose tribulations and success I have shared. There is something unique here.

The final day of the Swisse Mark Webber Challenge 2011 had a rather different format from the rest of the race – a “rogaine”, or large-scale orienteering leg, around Hobart. There were nine hills to visit around the city and a maximum of six hours in which to pick them all off, or at least as many as possible – and with such severe penalties for late arrival that nobody would risk overstepping the time. Each discipline had to be used, but there was also strategy, so all the teams pored over the maps for 30 minutes before the start at 9am.

And then there was another bomb-burst, as teams headed off in all different directions on mountain bikes, kayaks and on foot. We passed one another for the next five hours, each choosing different routes to the same goal. Teams began to cross the finish line on the Hobart waterfront just before 2pm, taking less than five hours. Having taken on just five of the checkpoints, and knowing a little of what they must have been through, I found myself amazed at the ability of the Elite teams. Their staying power really is something exceptional. Their skill level is very good in all the disciplines (of course the more efficiently you cover the leg, the less energy you expend and the more you have for the next section of the course), but they are also extremely able athletes.

But of course it is only half of the story in these races. The other is the personal one and the faces around me, that I have come to know over the past five days. We are a motley-looking bunch, that’s for sure, covered in scratches and sores, sunburned, with split lips and dirty beards. Our clothing is streaked with sweat, muck and salt. Nobody moves comfortably. Everything aches and we all have brutalised hands and feet. Mentally we are ragged.

But it is inspiring to be here. Having witnessed one another’s lows and highs, we feel we know each other well. And we know there is something that unites us that cannot be bought anywhere.

As Mark Webber himself said before we all started this race (it was just five days ago, but it seems like a month): “The mountains will be there forever, and so to know that you paddled here, biked there and ran there, that’s something fantastic and it will stay with you for ever.”