A Tasmanian devil

A five-day, 350km all-terrain adventure race devised by Formula One driver Mark Webber in Australia’s island state is the epitome of extreme. Is James Henderson up to the challenge?

A French team race up Mount Amos on day one
A French team race up Mount Amos on day one | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

Yeah, day two of the 2006 Challenge, that’s what sticks in my mind. We reached the summit of Mount Roland – about two hours up a tough section of scree – and then we ran along the top, about 18 or 20 kilometres. I felt absolutely bombproof, just running and running. It was like I was running through walls.”

This is the Formula One racing driver Mark Webber describing what it feels like to be on top physical form – not on the motor-racing track, obviously, but taking part in an adventure race in Tasmania.

James Henderson on day one’s mountain-bike ride in the Freycinet National Park
James Henderson on day one’s mountain-bike ride in the Freycinet National Park | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

And it is about to take place again. The Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge is five days of extreme physical activity up and down the landscape of Tasmania. It’s a test of overall fitness and endurance, a sustained push against the aerobic barrier for eight or more hours each day, overcoming setbacks and surprises along the way. Adventure racing is part sinew and determination stretched to the limit, and part call of the wild; almost a metaphor for a forgotten male life – and incidentally a good way to feel completely alive. Which comes with a certain poignancy. At 50, I wonder if I’m too old for this sort of thing. After all, I retired from it a decade ago. Will there still be any fire in my belly?

Mark Webber set the race up in 2003 and has competed in every one since, until this 2011 outing. He will race the first day but then must be away to an F1 end-of-season awards ceremony. It’s a fair excuse, given that he finished third in the Drivers’ Championship.

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Seeing his excitement at the start, though, I get the impression he’d prefer to stay. Day one is centred on the spectacular-looking Freycinet Bay, and begins at 7.30am with a short orienteering course around the hotel grounds and a swim. Then it’s down to the beach for a 7km kayak paddle. The water is glass flat. Stunning. I look around briefly – it doesn’t get much better than this – but it’s eyes down and time to graft. We need a head of steam, or we’ll never finish. My team-mate is a whippet-thin young fellow called Ryan Bailey, who is also a journalist. It’s always a nervous moment. Racing can strain relations to breaking point – I’ve been in teams that have nearly imploded.

It is important for entrants to have some experience of adventure racing, in order to understand how such sports, and you, function. Fitness is key, but so is skill in the various disciplines (every inefficient paddle-stroke loses you time, and you have to work harder to keep up, further depleting yourself over the five days). Understanding of nutrition, hydration and how to pace yourself are vital.

Swimming across a creek on Bruny Island
Swimming across a creek on Bruny Island | Image: Juris Puisens - JP Photo

But it is fun, too, and as the sun climbs overhead we are mountain biking in humid forest, skittering through sand patches and flashing past the peeling trunks of eucalyptuses. Five hours later we are ascending (me painfully, cramping) the delightfully named Hazard Mountains, and after six there is a superb abseil down raw, near-vertical pink granite. Then we’re back in the kayaks, arriving at a luxury hotel in the afternoon sun. Just over eight hours. And that’s only day one.

I ask Webber what inspired him to create the challenge. “I love the outdoors. It’s the satisfaction of putting something behind you, whether it’s ascending a mountain, cycling or whatever,” he says. “You say to yourself, ‘I was down there four hours ago and now I’m up here. And I did it myself.’ By the end of the race I want everyone to have had an absolute blast, and to tick some boxes they never thought they would.

Abseiling down Mount Amos
Abseiling down Mount Amos | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

“It inspires confidence in yourself to know that you can keep going. You can learn from that. You can’t buy this feeling at the shops – you’ve got to go and do it yourself. When you experience things out of your comfort zone, it’s good for you in everyday life. You get wiser, and you teach yourself how to deal with hurdles.”

Adventure-race courses are a formidable logistical challenge. The keynote is physical endurance, over a series of surmountable challenges. And yet they must allow the lead teams – some of the best in the world here, who move amazingly efficiently – to be tested, while not leaving the ones in it for the experience to be left behind and forgotten.

Arriving ashore at the end of day one
Arriving ashore at the end of day one | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

John Jacoby, founder of race organisers Rapid Ascent and a formidable veteran adventure racer himself, planned this challenge: “Any course has to be a balance of physical and mental demands, but not become brain-deadening and leave you wondering why on earth you are doing this. So we have lots of transitions and visit some cool places along the way.”

It’s true; after the magnificent coast and forest, we find ourselves in Port Arthur, the old penal colony, with its Georgian buildings and imported British trees. The organisers also like a spectacular, so the second day starts with the 50 of us diving off boats and swimming ashore to the kayaks. We paddle for one hour, run and hike for two, mountain bike two, run one and kayak one. It’s a mad rush, but we know that we must pace ourselves in order not to burn out.

 A day-four sprint in the Hartz Mountains
A day-four sprint in the Hartz Mountains | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

Like every race, the Tasmania Challenge develops its particular signature over time. This is a distinctive melding of landscape – in this case Tasmanian forest trails, rivers and beaches – and smells and sensations all filtered through the prism of a gradually depleting mind. The imprint becomes near-visceral.

Ryan and I are muddling along well. We are here to defeat the course rather than to win, but there is honour in the knowledge that the other person will give all they can and not shirk. We help one another along: I lead the kayaking, Ryan chivies me up the hills. And we share: water, knowledge of nutrition, thoughts on life. Best of all, though, he doesn’t complain. Not once.

 A 100m-dash to the shoreline of the Tasman Peninsula on day two.
A 100m-dash to the shoreline of the Tasman Peninsula on day two. | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

With Ryan at about half my weight and barely more than half my age, we’re an odd team. Eventually, someone inquires if we are father and son. I reply with something curt and Anglo-Saxon, and an ironic smile. In fact, it’s the normal course of things. In Webber’s words, “The camaraderie builds up for the last two days of the event. It’s competitive and people are fairly insular for the first couple of days. But it breaks down, and there are some real characters, which is great.”

Where track athletes are hustled away by agents, here competitors become your friends. Clearly, enough time spent watching another person pushing themselves through pain breaks down the barriers.

2011 race winners Mark Hinder (front) and Mark Padgett kayaking on day two
2011 race winners Mark Hinder (front) and Mark Padgett kayaking on day two | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

If races like this are a metaphor for now sidelined qualities of human fortitude, I wonder if this teamwork can apply to the modern workplace. One competitor, David Moffatt, has raced in all of the challenges, despite a business career that included a stint as group managing director of Australian telecoms company Telstra. He knows the commitment the race can involve, so does he see a useful place for this activity in business?

“Without question. I have observed that people who strive for that next level of excellence in their personal lives often make the greatest contributions as leaders,” says Moffatt. “At Telstra (which sponsored the first four races and entered teams in each), we felt that the opportunity to aspire to things beyond the workplace helped to forge team spirit and camaraderie. These bonds, strengthened through shared endeavour such as this kind of adventure, are rarely broken.”

Mark Webber
Mark Webber | Image: Tim Jones / Perfect Prints

Moffatt muses on the experience and its link with leadership: “We have a responsibility to share what we have learnt, because you’re vulnerable in this game. Things go wrong. It’s what you do next that’s important. I’ve always thought that myths have value, and these are the myths of our times. ‘How did people deal with this or that? What did they learn about themselves?’ It’s very instructional for a team to hear about vulnerability and success, and then to feel that maybe they too can have a go.”

This need to test and learn in a competitive vein also propels Mark Webber. He competes, fiercely, as you would imagine (something I witness, in a moment of geographical embarrassment, as we pass him heading the other way), but Webber has also been in it for charitable reasons. “The 2003 race was a chance for me to set up the foundation, and having visited lots of hospitals around the world, I wanted to put something back in for people less fortunate than me.” Since then, the Challenge Foundation has donated more than £670,000; in 2011 it gave more than £67,000 to White Lion, an Australian youth charity, and the Save the Tasmanian Devil appeal.

James Henderson (far right) and his race partner, Ryan Bailey
James Henderson (far right) and his race partner, Ryan Bailey | Image: Juris Puisens / Perfect Prints

After the 10 hours of day four, which involve a hike, a hideous mountain-bike leg, an abseil, more mountain biking and a river paddle, I have reached the limits of endeavour. The long-forgotten sensations of adventure racing have returned. Exhaustion is no longer sleepiness.

It is body-fat and immune-system breakdown, the leaden zone of immovable limbs and split lips. My shifting mind is unable to focus, strains of old songs force themselves into the rhythms of my movement, and I conclude that I am in New Zealand. It’s thousand-yard-stare territory.

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But after a night’s sleep our tails are up. And just a few hours of racing later, after paddling, cycling and running around the state capital Hobart, Ryan and I have made it to the finish line. We have defeated the course. We acknowledge our achievement with a handshake, a hug and a beer. As for me, well, there was a guttering (of flame) in the belly – yes, definitely felt alive – and, of course, an exceptional, visceral memory of adventure.

In the words of Webber: “Later you can look at a map and say, ‘We trekked through there, or paddled across there’ – and that’s there forever. The terrain’s there forever. It’s incredibly satisfying knowing what you have achieved.”

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