It is with much honour and privilege that we are able to share this remarkable story with the users of our website.
We have joined with Nathan on his Adventure Racing World Championship journey over the last couple of years and are delighted to be able to call him a friend. He has attended our company celebrations, given amazing and inspiration talks to some of our customers at vehicle launches and is the best brand ambassador anyone could ever hope for.
Continue on to read this epic tale firsthand of his teams remarkable win, the trials and tribulations on the trail, and the sense of adventure he brings to the journey. Please support him as he transitions from a back to back World Champion Adventure Athlete into the next evolution of himself by buying his autobiography (click here). He is an inspirational man, and one the region can be ever so proud of.
Captains report : Nathan Fa’avae
December 1st, 2015.
As I sit in my office at home, in a comfy chair, gazing occasionally out over the ocean to the distance mountains, with an aromatic coffee in hand and an abundance of fresh food and clean drinking water just a room away, I ponder what I will write about the 2015 World Adventure Racing Championships in Brazil, and more specifically, the Pantanal, the World’s largest tropical wetland that spills into Bolivia and Paraguay. In my world of comforts, I can’t help but think, “it wasn’t that bad, it was fun, wasn’t it?’
I’ll begin with two quotes.
On arrival in Corumba, the host town for the event, as well as being hit with near 40-degree temperatures and high humidity, I was also welcomed by old friend and race director Shubi Guimaraes, I first met Shubi racing Eco Challenge events some 15-years ago.
She said to me;
“You’re going to fall in love with Pantanal Nathan”.
It certainly sounded like an amazing place, but I’m not convinced after years of expedition racing, if it’s the best mode of travel to truly appreciate a place, funny how extreme hardship and suffering can taint ones impression. But I was keen to be there, looking forward to the adventure, and most of all, I wanted to race … that said, I wasn’t sure if I’d be falling in love.
The other quote I’ll share is an oldie but a goodie, one that I’ve lived by for a long time and one that played through my mind many times over during the days I endured surviving Pantanal.
“When you’re safe at home you wish you were doing an adventure … when you’re doing an adventure you wish you were safe at home”.
I’ll be honest, on an almost hourly basis in the race my mind took me home, wishing I hadn’t turned up at the race, wishing I could be doing something easier, more comfortable, more sensible. But as expected, and I know this from experience, now that I am home, I’m better for the experience and glad to have had it.
Midway through the race, about day four, Sophie asked me how I was going, my reply “I’m working very hard to stay in the present”. Which translates to “this is shit, I don’t want to be here, I wish I was somewhere else”. But again, my mind and body has been in this situation before and I knew I needed to come to terms with reality, and do what needed to be done, which in my language of self talk and motivation equates to “Harden the F@*k up Nathan” … which is what I did.
The pre race days with my team Sophie Hart, Chris Forne and Stuart Lynch were very relaxed. As a team we have systems, two systems actually, one system to manage all the pre race requirements, and another system to manage Chris. It means we can operate extremely efficiently and spend the majority of the time pre race relaxing, recovery from our final training loads and getting our minds focused on the race. Perhaps the highlight of the pre race antics this year was when Sophie and I went on a shopping trip into town to buy a jug to boil hot water but instead returned to the hotel with a coffee machine, our room at times moonshining as a cafe. We were equipped with our favoured blends from New Zealand roasters so life was good, the coffee very good. Preparing for the race logistics was helped a lot by having the box plan and stage information released early, it meant we could pack more specifically before we left New Zealand and be more organised, I hope that becomes a standard feature in events going forward, give teams more information to allow them to be more prepared, it made a huge difference traveling internationally as it meant we didn’t take and pay extra, for a heap of stuff we’d never use or need.
As the defending World Champions having won in Ecuador in 2014 our goal for the race was to win. We know that focusing on a result though is not a fun or productive way to perform, so we zeroed in on extracting our potential, we believed without any doubt that if we raced to our capability, then we’d most likely win, and if we did have a great race and someone beat us, then good for them, they’d have to work like never before to do so.
With a high percentage of paddling this also played to our strengths, but we’re equally happy on foot or on bikes so we didn’t give the disciplines and distances much thought, only that we knew there was no way anyone was going to cover 700km in less than 6-days, from my experience in doing over 30-expedition length races, I know it’s not possible to cover much more than 130km as a daily average, and also why I have been advocating for a few years that the ARWC should be 500km maximum, that’s plenty of distance to have an adventure race, anymore and the races become boring, stretch event logistics and randomness enters the equation. We’d discussed the race length and time as a team, calculating it’d be a 5.5 - 7 day event. We knew on the start line that it was going to be impossible to complete the full course in the time we had available, but that didn’t concern us, adjustments would be made and the race would be the same for everyone - at least that’s what we assumed.
With no disrespect to the competition, we felt very confident going into the race, we’d done the training, we had faith in our ability, our talents and we were keen to get the job done.
We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we knew that in order for any team to beat us, something out of our control or some bad luck would need to strike. We thought if we didn’t win, Hagloffs Silva from Sweden would, their Kiwi navigator Aaron Prince being a massive contributor.
When I think about my team and compare it to the teams I’ve raced in over my career (essentially variations of Team Seagate), the striking thing is the depth of experience and skills the current team can draw on. Navigation is a good example, Chris has to be without a doubt the best navigator the sport has seen to date, he is a genius with map and compass, I believe Chris could have got us to the finish line even if all he had was a map of the world. But should anything happen to Chris, Stu is a navigator of acclaim and up there in the top group of navigators in the sport, so when they get their heads together, they amass a trove of valuable directional knowledge. But our skill base extends beyond just navigation and that makes us a very strong team. Anyone who has raced against Sophie or seen her race, will know why she know has three-World Championship titles, more than any other female, you earn those titles, they’re not prizes.
For me personally, I knew this race could very well be my last so I wanted it to be a memorable one, a victory being the ultimate outcome. When the stakes are high, I get interested. I was fired up.
Boxes packed, the expected painful dignitary speeches at the opening ceremony completed, race briefing (which I missed, I went to town and ate ice cream) and then it was onto the navy ships for a 12-hour trip up river to the start line. No offence to my room mates, but squeezing into a tiny room, in oppressing heat and humidity with 12-men is about as bad as things can get for me, very uncomfortable, awkward. The engine room noise and the snoring … magic. I spent most of the night listening to music from my iPhone and counting down the hours until daylight.
Back on land and now at the school project where the event was to start at 1pm, the heat was quick to remind us that daytime temperatures would be high and rising. I could feel the sun laughing at us “Ha! stupid earthlings, you think you’re race through there, idiots, I’m going to cook you”. It transpired that a heat wave hit the region the same time as the race, hottest temperatures for over a decade. Given the choice of being cold or hot, I’ll choose hot every time, my Samoan genes swaying the vote.
With hours to kill, hanging out with the school kids was a welcome distraction and entertainment. We read them stories and exchanged some tales via a translator. One little girl asked Sophie if she was afraid of Jaguars. Sophie asked her if she should be and the girl nodded profusely. When Sophie asked the kids who’d seen a Jaguar we were somewhat surprised when every single kid, about 15 of them all held their hands up high, eager to show us they’d all encountered them, excellent, they all seemed to have bodies in tact so that was comforting.
Race starts are always a little manic, logic and reason packed in the depth of peoples packs, to be unpacked later when they’ve blown and are struggling. A kayak start is very relaxing for us, we know we can dictate the speed and pretty much do as we please. Our plan was to paddle at a firm but manageable pace, to hopefully get a lead but mainly to apply some pressure.
As we lined up I was somewhat perplexed as to why most of the top teams had staged themselves mid stream, paddling against the strongest current. We were probably the last team to the start line and glided into the eddy next to the river bank. Soon after the starting horn blasted and we paddled up the eddy and up river. Immediately we’d got a gap and off we went. I was pleased to have got a gap straight away as what I didn’t want to do was tow a whole line of teams up river all afternoon.
Soph and I parked ourselves nicely on the boys wash and got down to the job of being horrendously over heated. We paddled out of sight of the following teams. My mind entertained for a while when I saw a Toucan flying across the river, it got me thinking as to why a Toucan would fly across the river in the first place, what was it thinking? where was it going? what for? what purpose? I didn’t draw any conclusions, other than it fitted the appropriate time of heading home after work.
Sweating, itching and rapidly over heating we trotted out on the sandy road that was stage two, a 25km hike. Soon into the stage we started to track a Jaguar, all surprised by the size of the paw prints that padded up the road ahead of us, mmm, a very big cat, I focused on sending out an aura of ‘I love cats’, but was sure a Jaguar wouldn’t be so easily fooled, possibly smelling my dog on me. A team an hour later saw a Jaguar on this stage so it must have been close, most likely watching us go by. I was getting mildly worried as we travelled along, Stu and Chris were setting a blistering pace and I couldn’t understand the logic. I was keen to race hard but I didn’t see any sense in pushing that quick so early, especially given the afternoon in the sun we’d had.
Perhaps the fact of the matter was that I’d done more 6 and 7-day races than them and I knew that pacing was critical, and keeping people healthy. I was tempted to remind Stu of the major melt down his team (and ours) had suffered in Costa Rica a few years earlier, and while they won, it wasn’t a pretty ending. Despite numerous attempts of mine to control and change the speed we seemed to be stuck on a runaway train, in the end I resigned myself to thinking “someone is going blow up soon then we’ll be forced to slow down”. Sophie was concerned also about the speed we were going and said to the guys that she would go in front and set the pace, which she did, but less than a minute later the boys had passed her and racing off up the road again.
Midway through the stage we arrived at a checkpoint in a village. We used that time to refill with clean water, cool off, tend to our feet and replenish. The village had provided some food and chilled drinks, including fresh fruit juice. I felt the team were still in a mindset of racing a fast paced shorter race, like Godzone, and it was frustrating and worrying me. I wanted everybody to calm down, to get in control. As we were about to leave the checkpoint Sophie and Stu told Chris and I that inside the house there was food and drink, they’d had some while we’d treated our feet with anti chafe and clipped the control.
No sooner had we got inside and Sophie started to tell us to hurry up, we should go. I didn’t want any food but I was eager to replenish fluids and especially the chilled juice, hydration and nutrients a welcome remedy. I managed to drink three cups of icy fruit juice but after each cup was reminded by Sophie to hurry up, I found her impatience unacceptable and uncharacteristically I vented my frustrations, which didn’t go down very well, making a scene at the check point. I knew then that my behaviour wasn’t appropriate but the outcome did make a point. We needed to pay attention to the details, the small things. Sophie was upset and I was angry, not just at her, but the whole team.
It was rare for issues to flare up in our team especially between Sophie and I, who typically bring out the best in each other whilst racing, so I made a mental note to be on top of my game for the rest of the race, to stay composed and apply racing intelligence. I was the team Captain and I needed to do a better job.
We settled into a sustainable rhythm which was just as well because not long after, when we reached the top of the hill we needed to climb on the stage, Stu went through a bad patch, a result of pushing to hard in the heat. We descended to the lake to the start of stage three, getting caught up in jungle for a while we were passed by teams Hagloffs and Tecnu who’d lucked in with a cleaner route. The three teams were in transition together pumping up the pack rafts. We spotted some huge spiders in that section of forest, some of them looked like the Wandering Spiders.
Paddling upriver in thermonuclear sunshine is unpleasant, we were being sun dried, withering up as moisture was being extracted from our bodies. We regularly threw water on each other in attempts to cool down and stopped for a few swims, but the water was so warm it was like soaking in a hot bath on a hot day, we counted the hours for the sun to set - or to portrait more accurately the feeling at the time, we counted the hours for the sun to F*%K off. Finally shadow engulfed us as we paddled onto a lake, a breeze greeted us and for the first time in the race I started to enjoy myself, it was lovely, the mountains silhouetted in the final light of the day, conversing with Sophie, sipping electrolyte, banqueting on GU energy gels, a scintillating evening out adventure racing.
Arriving at the end of the stage, 50km completed, we had a clear lead, no sign of any teams immediately behind us. That meant nothing to us at this stage of the race we’d barely begun and we knew we’d see teams soon enough. The first TA set the tone in many respects. We clambered onto the muddy shore and to a well planned and executed mosquito attack, once under the trees and out of the breeze the heat smothered us and when we asked the staff where the drinking water was, they pointed back to the lake we’d just paddled, the thick brown cloudy warm water, telling us to drink that. “Um, don’t suppose you have any of the clear cool variety?”.
We started the 36km stage in darkness but knowing sunrise was imminent. Ahead we could see the lights of the two teams ahead. Early on there was a portage option and we decided quickly it didn’t look good. The Swedish team Hagloffs were preparing to portage while the USA team Tecnu opted to paddle. We wanted to stay paddling too. Just before day break we spotted Tecnu heading up a wrong channel and soon after that we waved out to the Swedes as they popped out of the jungle, we were back in the lead, little did we know then that we wouldn’t see another team again for about 5-days. The next checkpoint we couldn’t find but we knew we were in the right place so we carried on. After hours paddling in a river system we arrived at a lake for a 10km paddle, in a very strong head wind and building waves, about as worse as it could get for little pack rafts. Barely making way we fought upwind for hours, Sophie and I couldn’t keep contact with the chaps so a tow line was set up, sleep deprivation entering the mix.
Arriving at the end of the water section we had to select a landing point and an ascent route to climb the peak and descent to the next transition area. There were a number of options so we eyed one up, Chris seeing a line that looked direct under some larger trees. Getting ready on the beach was hot, dam hot. We soaked in the lake but it was so warm it seemed somewhat pointless. Once we started walking we were saddened at the weight of our packs, dripping wet and loaded with rafts, paddles, pfd’s etc. Once into the jungle the heat was stifling, it felt like we were in a kiln. Added to the equation, aggressive mosquitos rampaging and a myriad of spiky vines and plants. One spike severed my pack and punctured my water bladder, 3-litres of water rapidly spilling onto the ground, brilliant. We named this inferno hill, why? because it was f*@king unbearably hot. It reminded me of climbing at altitude where every metre up was a small victory. We clawed and crawled our way up the hill, shocked at our pathetic speed. Chris had exerted a ton of energy pushing through the thick jungle to the base of the hill and was hit by some sort of heat anxiety attack, his body freaking out in the 40+ degree oven. I’m lucky I have genes that can handle the heat, I don’t enjoy the intense heat, but I can handle it. I went to the front and pulled my weight, giving Chris a break. It took concentrated focus to keep progressing up, as difficult as it was, I knew not moving was only going to make things worse. We needed to dig deep and stop complaining. Sophie started a competition that each person was only to comment on the heat five more times in the race. After about 5-minutes, we’d all lost.
As we reached the ridge, a waft of breeze offered some mild relief, desperately we kept going forward, we were prisoners to the sun, there was no respite, the only escape was to go on, upwards. I wasn’t enjoying myself one bit, but we still managed to joke about the absurdity and unbelievable situation we were in. I hoped a Jaguar may take me, but decided they like their meat rare, by now I was well done. We did stop for a breather near the top and once we restarted I barely had the strength to stand up, I was hit with extreme fatigue. I hopelessly kept climbing. “Oh man, what is going on here?”. Sophie had reached the summit and knew I must be hurting so she came back down and got my pack “Thanks Soph" I muttered in sweat drenched exhaustion.
Impressively, a media entourage had hiked up to the checkpoint and were keen to interview us, it provided some distraction from the task at hand and soon after we started the descent. The cooler air movement and recovery had Chris enthused about bush bashing and getting us off the mountain. Stu was quietly suffering away under his hefty pack. We’d all run out of water and dreamed of getting to the TA, having blissful endless water to drink, some 10km away. A small trail led us down and midway we found a water container in a tree that had a litre of water in it, we’ll have that thank you very much. That small amount of water made the final stretch far more enjoyable. It was a reminder for us the dire consequences if we ran out water for long in this wicked climate.
The stage ended, what on paper looked like a little jaunt over the hill had turned into a monster challenge, but it was completed, phew, we ripped into the joys of our TA box, we rehydrated, sponges absorbing water. The stage had been way harder and longer than we expected which we understood would transpire into the greater event. The whole race was going to longer and harder. Accept that and move on. I had earned a 30-minute penalty when we’d stopped to adjust things 3km before the end of the stage and I’d left my race bib on the trail. But Craig Bycroft had found it and returned it to me, I had been given a clean one so putting my toxic smelling old bib was a grimace, I thought 30-minutes for a clean fresh bib seemed worth it!
We were keen to take a short rest at the TA but it was to hot so we decided to get into the next stage which was set to ascend to higher elevations and cooler temperatures. We figured if we climbed 800-1000 metres up and found somewhere to sleep in the cool of the night it’d be far better. At the base of the climb we met a stream that had chilled clear water in it, that was from the Gods and was savoured with great appreciation. In the early hours of the morning we found a windy exposed place with some pockets of grass to bunk down in. It was refreshing and the breeze was strong enough to ground any mosquitos that may have been flying in the region. If they wished to bite us, they’d have to walk to us. We stopped for a three hour sleep and it was glorious. After two hours I even awoke cold, but I embraced the chill and was pleased my whole body was being cooled. Once walking again we didn’t have long until old mate, intense sunshine was back on our case.
The trek stage was along a boulder strewn ridge line and offered massive views of Pantanal, it was somewhat daunting looking at the plains where we’d be heading in a few days time. Thankfully there was just enough water along the route to refill and the stage was pleasant. The team highlight being a cool deep plunge pool under a canopy of trees, a religious person would call it heaven on earth, we celebrated a few minutes submerged in purity, cooling down and scraping sweaty grime off. Chris did a superb job navigating despite getting stung by some African bees during the day.
We hadn’t seen any signs of teams all day but we were focused purely on ourselves and we were pleased with how we were holding up, our speed and our commitment, we weren't mucking around. Now in the TA we tucked into a hot meal and readied ourselves for the kayak stage, a 60km down river paddle. With less than two hours of daylight remaining our goal was to complete the paddle and stop for more sleep before the sun returned to torture us for another day.
Disappointment was felt when we discovered the organisation didn’t have our kayak bag, it contained back rests, foot rests but amid that was also stashed our night paddling sleep monster deterring device, a water proof stereo. Dam, no sounds.
In the darkness as we sped along, hours ticked by as we told stories, sang the occasional song and paddled away. We noted a speeding power boat approaching us and hoped they’d seen us. As it got closer they turned and headed towards us, we decided it must be a media boat, which it was, but they’d mainly come out to give us our kayak bag which we happily accepted, fitting back rests and most importantly, pumping the stereo. “Welcome to the jungle, We’ve got fun 'n' games”
Reaching the TA we were in good spirits but they were soon deflated. We were greeted by event staff and we asked them where we could sleep, the race handbook showed there was a building available.
“No, there is no where for you to sleep, sorry”
What about a toilet, is there a bathroom we can use?
“No, sorry, no bathroom”
What about fresh drinking water, do you have any?
“No, sorry, you have to drink the river water”
The staff were friendly, but they simply didn’t have any good news to pass on.
Far out, this event is sure not making anything easy. With a stroke of luck the wind started to build and by the time we’d got ready to go hiking, the mosquitos had disappeared, so we hunkered down on the river bank in the strongest breeze and loaded a three hour sleep into the system.
Upon waking we had a few hours of darkness starting the 49km hiking stage. Early on we had to wade through or walk around large mud bogs and we joked that if it was going to be like this for nearly 50km it was going to be hell. But as the light came, the water started to clear and by mid morning we were following an animal stock track through crystal clear water. It was very pretty and the underwater life was amazing to view, the fish, sting rays and water plants, with golden sand underfoot. We swam whenever we could and lavishly drank the clean water, it was fun. The sunshine and constantly being in the clean water felt like our bodies were recovering and the spots and pimples and rashes that had festered away in the sweat and heat of the first few days were all healing and calming down. We did comment a number of times though how slow our speed was, we were not stopping at all but we were still only covering small distances each hour, especially if we spent a large section wading in waste deep water. It was another striking hot day but being in or near water made it easily manageable. The day passed and by the time we had our headlights on we didn’t have far to go to the next TA where we would collect a resupply food bag and our pack rafts.
As we neared the TA it dawned on me how comfortable we were becoming around the alligators, as we waded past quite a large one literally one metre away from us. Knowing we were going to stop for another sleep I could hear my team mates discussing a plan. I could hear the numbers two and three hours being mentioned and I heard Chris say four. I wondered how the team would react when I was about to suggest we stopped for eight hours. I knew instinctively that behind us no team was going to do what we’d done in the night, it’d be daylight before another team reached the TA, I was willing to bet on that. I caught up to the team and entered the sleep discussion, saying that six to eight hours was what I suggested. Chris jumped at the chance at six which I was happy about, but my gut feeling was that eight would be better, we’d get nearly a full recovery if we slept for that long, and if a team caught up to us, I couldn’t have cared, we needed to do what was best for us.
The TA staff greeted us and we ordered a meal from the local farmer, made ourselves beds and settled in for a quality rest. After a hot meal, a feast in truth, and copious glasses of fresh fruit juice, we lay down on the balcony for a 6-hour sleep, grateful for a cooling breeze.
We had some concerns over the 8kg resupply bag we’d collected. To date, the stage times were double to triple what was predicted so the meager 2kg of food each seemed extremely unlikely to last for the stage ahead, which could be two-days. We’d need to be on tight rationing, especially Sophie and I whose food bags had been diminished at gear check in when our food bag was 9kg, Sophie and I had taken 1kg from our supplies, and I got a sense from Chris and Stu that they considered that bad luck for us.
As soon as we started onto the stage, claimed to be 56km pack rafting, I regretted not enforcing an eight hour sleep, that would have meant we would have started in daylight and for the first hour back on course we barely went anywhere as we tried to find the trail and get started, we would have been better off sleeping. Anyway, the sun soon gave us vision and we started to move. But early into the stage Chris was getting really frustrated, little made sense, the map and land seemed to be at war with each other. We tried many options to locate the trail and figure out what was happening. We had in our heads we’d be following a water way, but it soon became apparent there wasn’t one, at least not one that lined up with the trail on the map. After an hour or so of going in circles Chris suggested we just forget about the trail, set a bearing and just go. I was keen for that, I wanted to get moving in the direction we needed to go, regardless of what was in front us. Chris summed it up best saying “I’m not sure if this is a good idea, but one thing is certain, it’s going to be a big adventure!”
Nothing could have prepared us for the stage. We paddled some amazing water streams and pools of immense clarity, abundant with fish and plants, but we also waded through swamps, forced our way through lily ponds and weeds and trudged in grasslands knee deep in mud, sometimes deeper. It took a huge amount of energy and power to make any progress and numerous times we were glad we’d had such a good rest overnight, it enabled us to move strongly. We were occasionally stung by something in the swamp that we couldn’t see. The day was again ridiculously hot but we had regular opportunity to swim and the water was divine. After hours of slogging away, working hard to make progress, which at times was painfully slow, we caught sight of the farm house that was served as a virtual checkpoint to us, yahoo. I had to laugh to myself when Chris said he was going to knock on the door to see if anyone was home. “Are you friggin joking? the place was clearly abandoned, the only life out here is ants and lizards”. Big surprise, no one home, maybe they’ve just popped out to a cafe for lunch? We sat in the shade examining the maps. We got there expecting things to improve but if anything, the travel appeared to get worse. Chris went for a wander to see what options we had. Stu later did the same thing. I hunted around for food, the yard was littered with coconuts but they were all bone dry, I eventually found one with liquid inside so I opened it, Sophie and I sat waiting, chewing on coconut. There were massive mango trees but they were all green.
It was a classic surreal adventure racing moment. ‘Look where we are … for f&*ks sake’.
In the end we decided to stick with our straight line approach, trying to find a trail seemed like a waste of time, let’s push on. We zig zagged across the bearing as we tried to find the easiest passage. Chris was doing an amazing job of tracking our progress and keeping us on the line.
As the day started to wind up, Chris informed us that the waypoint we needed to pass was just ahead in the trees. We eagerly made our way and started to get excited when we stumbled onto a good trail, which led us to the farm house. We were in high spirits, it had taken us about 12-hours to cross what was likely the hardest part of the course. The predicted time for the stage was 10-hours, which we could only laugh at, we were looking at 24-hours at least. How Chris pin pointed that spot so accurately was a master display of navigation, patience and the result of millions of micro decisions, a lifetime spent tracking progress on a map.
We were happy, it’d been an epic day and challenge but we’d enjoyed it, it didn’t feel like a race, it felt like we were on a genuine expedition, and we were barely halfway.
Going into the night once again we knew we’d broken the stages back and the travel became significantly easier. The navigation was still challenging so we took our time still, Chris diligently always knowing where he was on the map, which at 1:100000 scale, seemed impossible to me, but he did it. As the night wore on I suggested to the team we stop for another 6-hour sleep, or longer, until day light again. The race still had days to go and we needed to recover during the nights when it was cool and the navigation was interrupted, and travel quickly during the day. It made no sense to me to push through the night and start another blisteringly hot day without having properly rested. But my team were eager to push on, despite my suggestion being loud and clear. It surprised me that they’d spoken often during the day that the long break the previous night had been so beneficial yet they were opposed to doing it again, to me it was a ‘no brainer’ but I was out voted. They were worried teams maybe close by, or had even passed us but I told them that I’d be surprised if there was a team within 12-hours of us. My theory was based on the fact we’d travelled much of the tricky navigation in daylight hours which meant any team wanting to catch us would be forced to travel through the night, and that was only going to end in disaster for them. My other rational was that no team had challenged us since the race begun, we’d simply powered away and were still racing well, we were healthy, rested, fuelled up and not making any errors, how was it possible we’d be losing any time? As we battled on, pointlessly in my view, thankfully, Chris was stung by a stingray just after midnight and due to the pain he was in, we found a small island and slept for 6-hours. It would have been much better to stop without having Chris injured but under the circumstances, I felt the stingray had done us a favour, at Chris’ expense. The dry piece of island was clearly an alligator platform so we arranged ourselves in a way that gave us some protection should we be stalked in the night, machete at arms reach. Chris was in immense pain but I was confident he’d sleep it off, Sophie was mildly concerned about the injury and wildlife, asking if we should light a fire or send a message on the Yellow Brick, I assured her we’d be sweet, just get some sleep, she opted to sleep in the pack raft, on the island. Amazingly, there wasn’t one mosquito which was odd because ten minutes earlier we’d stopped to change light batteries and been nailed by gangs of the things.
Once daylight was upon us we readied ourselves and luckily Chris was back to full strength, sleep had cured the pain of the sting. The stop set us up for another strong day. About midday we finally made it to the end of the stage, after a few hiccups searching for the trails. We did wonder how much benefit the trailing teams would get from following our track and footsteps, but there was nothing we could do about it. Not including our sleeps, it’d taken us 30-hours of moving time to complete a stage that was predicted to take 10-hours! Starving hungry, Sophie and I had combined our rations for the stage as we were living out of the pack raft, the final day we’d only had a few energy gels to get us through, which turned out to be enough, just. I was quietly pleased to be losing some weight, I needed to shed a few kilos. We dumped our pack raft gear, chatted with event staff and enjoyed a hearty meal in the farmhouse, salted beef, bread biscuits, cold sweet tea and cheese. It was a royal meal but I regretted not taking more water on the following stage as the 1lb of salted beef I ate made me extremely thirsty.
The 27km hike was expected to take 4-hours, we reckoned we could do it in 6-hours. We were feeling good. But once onto the sandy track and directly under the hottest sun of the day, we were being liquefied again. We kept the pace honest, pushing hard to complete the stage in minimal time and fretted about managing our water. It was over 40-degrees and there was not a shadow of shade anywhere near the trail, it was a fire walk. I was deeply worried of running out of water and nearing the 20km I drank my last drop. Praying, I hoped the house marked on the map just ahead would be a chance for us to refill, and to my joyous relief, we got there to see people wandering around. They happily refilled our bladders all the while making signs to us that we were crazy, yeah, we know. Now I could chug down as much water as I could, glorious. Excitement was mounting, after five days of racing, we were about to reach our bikes for the first time. By now the hours and days started to go by almost unnoticed, the sun was setting yet again. The sandy road was taking its toll, the slow walking and extra energy required to walk on the shifting surface. Our feet were in good condition given they’d been wet for so long, warm and hot jammed into socks and shoes, and dirty. We’d diligently applied a myriad of concoctions all race, anti fungal, antiseptic and antibacterial creams and powders. The main product we used was Ready-set-go Anti-chafe and attribute our happy feet to that product. With 10km remaining we were tired of our shoes filling up with sand so we took them off and walked in our socks. It felt therapeutic letting our feet spread out freely and all the working parts and pressure points activated, almost a foot massage. Sophie lost a shoe whilst walking in socks so thankfully it was a sandy trail all the way to the end. We longed for the final hurdle to reach the TA, a large river which we hoped we’d be able to swim in. The mosquitos started to build in numbers so we knew the river must be close. We took blissful minutes soaking in the river before we entered the TA, to assemble bikes, load the food we needed and refuel. Chris and Stu marked up the new sets of maps and we started to get our head around the finishing days. The TA were excited to see us and help out.
The final kayak stage had been cancelled which we were disappointed about, we’d been looking forward to that paddle but we also knew if we stayed on the full course we’d likely finish the race a few hours before prize giving.
Ahead of us was a 250km bike stage that included the ropes section, then it was down to the water for a 5km canoe to the end, we figured about a day and half to go, possibly taking the race to 7-days for us, it all seemed pretty straight forward from here out.
We still had no idea what was happening behind us, different media had said that Hagloffs Silva were 90-minutes, 3 and 6-hours behind, so the information was useless. I believed it’d be at least 12-hours. I was certain we’d got into a different 12-hour hour cycle than the chase teams, meaning what we did during the day they did at night, which enabled us to control the race far more.
The excitement of being on bikes was short lived as we hit deep sand after a few hundred metres and started to walk our bikes. Shit. After a few hours we’d averaged 8km/ph. This was going to be a mammoth walk / ride. The first checkpoint (CP) 7km along the route was at a small village and was staffed. We discovered here that the bulk of the field behind us had been flown ahead and all their bikes had been moved to this point. They told us about 9-teams were on course ahead of us.
Stu and Chris were chatting with the CP staff asking about how the road was in regard to the sand. They showed them on the map where the road got better, harder and faster. Interestingly, it wasn’t the route we were planning to take. We’d planned to take a direct line and we’d just found out that the road the vehicles used to reach that point was a longer one, by about 20km. We all agreed that if the vehicles were not using the shortest route then it must be bad, we decided to take the longer road. Being significantly heavier than my team mates, I couldn’t ride in the deep sand, my wheels would dig a trench and stop me, so I spent a majority of the time walking and jogging through the sandy trails while they did their best to ride. I didn’t mind a 20km run in sand with my bike, it’d be good training. After hours of crap riding ever so slowly the conditions started to improve and finally we popped onto a farm and hard, higher ground.
Relieved, we decided to stop for a few hours sleep. The wind was blowing, air was cooler and the grass inviting, as were the ants.
Back on bikes we sped over the trails, getting to faster speeds, actually bike riding. A curious sight was speeding past a large grass fire that spanned a few kilometres. It was quite a sight (I wondered for a while if I was hallucinating … mmm … maybe I was?) and for a while I was thinking we would need to ride through it to carry on but the trail took us around it.
As the sun rose again, I guess for the fifth (or sixth) time in the race we could see that the burning star was going to have a hard job harassing us on this day. There was thick dark cloud above and on the horizon it was black. The air was fresh and moist. This pleased us as we were very low on water and had the sun been up to it’s old tricks, we’d soon be thirsty and dehydrated again.
Zooming along the farm with the ever increasing chance of rain was rejuvenating, we even felt cool. The farm was an abundance of life, not only the cattle and horses but we saw a lot of deer, foxes, roseate spoonbills that resemble pink flamingos, capybaras, and rhea (similar to ostrich).
Sophie, wishfully, asked me if I thought it’d rain, the clouds on the horizon didn’t seem to be moving but I said I was pretty sure it would, the clouds were so dark they were black. Then the rain came, starting as sleet, ice crystals driving into us. As the storm hit we were blasted by a strong head wind but we cherished it, the torrential rain and the wind meant we were nearly cold, what a glorious sensation, soaked to the skin riding over the grassy plains.
Drenched through and the water cascading from the sky, I could feel my body soaking it up.
For a few hours we enjoyed the conditions as we cycled under the main thunderhead.
Many of the ponds had been topped up so we stopped to make up some meals. We ate about 25-freeze dry meals each during the race and we would have eaten more had we had them. I am a part owner of the company Absolute Wilderness and the meals have served us incredibly well. The ability to carry tasty and nutritious energy dense meals for such little weight meant that even though the stages were taking far longer than anticipated, we were actually doing fine as we were carrying so much freeze dried food. They were often a highlight of the day.
We passed a team that was on a shorter course sleeping. Later that morning we spotted a team ahead and on catching up to them we discovered it was Peak Performance from Sweden. We chatted them for a bit and they told us what was going on in the race. Mikael nearly fell off his bike laughing when I asked if any teams were close behind us. We learned that only five teams had entered the swamp, that teams Columbia Oncosec and Estonian ACE Adventure had activated their yellow bricks requesting evacuation and information, teams were lost, most teams had taken the plane out, many teams had people so dehydrated they were given intravenous injections - it sounded like a war zone behind us, which we found a little surprising, we’d been working hard, had done a fair bit of suffering and been uncomfortable, but overall, team spirit was positive, we were in fact having a good time and most of all, we were having an epic adventure.
We carried on riding and soon afterwards arrived at a store and a staffed checkpoint. We took the chance to get some cold drinks, refill our water and chat with staff. For the first time in the race it felt like we were back in some sort of civilisation. The heavy rain had also packed the sand down leaving the riding surface firm and fast. For the next few hours we had a straight road to ride which was a tad boring but needed to be done, so onwards it was. The temperature was significantly less than the previous days so we appreciated the change.
A welcome relief was reaching the river where ferry boats shuttled us across. Chris and I went first and while we were waiting for Sophie and Stu I rode into the village and stuck my head into a shop. Well well, what do we have here, a cafe. “Quatro espresso?”
After a few coffees we were back on the saddle. The race was starting to feel like it was wrapping up. We knew now we’d be finishing the following day. It was really the first time in the whole race we had a measurable finish line. Prior to getting to the bikes, we were anticipating a course change but we didn’t know what it would be, we had a strong sense that if they left the course open and unchanged, we’d be the only team to complete it, and one team finishing a race can’t be seen in any positive light. As it was, most teams that crossed the finish line had different routes in, and amid all of that was controversy. The bottom line was the over ambitious course and gross miscalculations of stage times had opened the door to chaos, thankfully we were not involved but I do feel sorry for many teams that in my view, were disadvantaged by the changes and modifications, and the rule breaches. But that wasn’t our problem and we were only getting information through the grape vine, so we just kept chasing our goal, for us to to get through the course as fast as we could. That’s all we could control.
So the sun set, again. Now we were climbing up a steep rough trail on bikes to the ropes challenge. We’d passed the French team Raidlight (they were in about 9th place) on a 10km section of railway line prior to the climb, both teams had flat tyres so we left them repairing a bike. The storm was still lingering and high wind was shaking the trees ahead. We reached the ropes and saw a few more teams, which was fun and odd at the same time. When you’ve been leading a race for 5-days or more, and then you started to catch teams, it’s a little weird.
The ropes was more of a time filling activity in the end as it was dark so we couldn’t see anything, it took about an hour to scale the mountain to the top and then a few minutes to descend back down, confirming for me that ropes sections in races are typically an inconvenience.
Riding down through the forest was probably the first real fun I’d had in the race, fun in the sense of high speed, yahoo stuff. The trail was cool, single track. While the race up until that point had taken us to amazing places, and we’d been awed at things, it wasn’t what I’d call fun, more that some sections had been enjoyable. But as we sped down the trail at warp speed my mind started to wander to breakfast, maybe the race finish line was closer. Wrong.
Thick mud, wheels not moving, bikes weighing 40kg. The days rain had turned the roads into quagmire. Hours of mud, cleaning bikes, carrying bikes, cursing bikes, will this race course ever relent? The conditions improved and we were back riding but also left wondering, “what the f@*k is next?” The answer, a few hours of bush bashing through head high grass, in a swamp.
We caught up to Team Godzone only 5km from the end of the ride. They explained the situation. A few teams (Merrel and Tecnu) had stopped to rest until daylight as they couldn’t find the route, or needed rest. There was a swift channel to cross which led to a swamp with no trail, and appeared to be impenetrable. A local villager was out with his torch and had waved us in that direction, smiling and clearly trying to be helpful. Brazilian racer Gui was in Team Godzone and he translated what the guy was saying. “Cross the stream, go through the bush, stay close to the power lines, look for higher ground, there is a house there, once at the house the road is good”. Made sense, let’s go. The main thing he said was that the power lines lead to the house, which is where the road is. So we bashed through the forest for what seemed like hours but was probably less, finally reaching the house and the road, wicked!
Surely, nothing can stop us now. I was racing with one eye shut as I’d had an insect fly into it, likely aiming for my headlight, it was irritating as hell but I knew the race now was all but done, let’s finish this thing. But poor Sophie was wrestling with the sleep monster, daylight was only 30-minutes away and by now we’d been officially informed we were leading by about a day so we needn’t rush or panic, a 10-minute power nap could be afforded. We crashed on the side of the road for nap, allowed the local mosquitos to refill and off we went to the TA, the end of the ride, start of the canoe.
Arriving at the TA Godzone were lazing on the river bank in the sun, they’d decided to let us take the lead and cross the line first, a respectful gesture and also made the online tracking look less confusing for the people viewing, the team in front was actually the leading team - what a concept! Bikes away we boarded a local canoe for a 5km paddle up river to the end - that in itself was an apt way to finish this race, paddling upstream. We had a few moments to process the week, the race, the adventure, the escapade.
We were about to win. We were about to win consecutive world championships titles, the first time this had been achieved by a team. We were about to regain the number world ranking, with maximum points, another world first. But while we were about to tick all these boxes, these outcomes were never a focus on the course. For most of the race we’d been in the moment, in the zone, constantly playing what was in front of us, over coming the immediate challenge, moving through the course one section at a time.
We’d been concentrating on our team, our health, our spirit, getting to the finish line as best we could, as fast as we could. That mind set and attitude was about to deliver us everything we imagined was possible, if everything went to plan.
The four of us had emerged from a herculean challenge, a brutal course that continually asked for more, a course where the rewards were short lived and infrequent. For one week in 2015 we were tested in a ‘survival of the fittest’ environment. We were returning, mission complete.
Was this to be my last finish in an expedition race?
I asked myself that question as the finish line came into view. 500-metres to go, I told myself to enjoy the occasion, think about the future in the future. It was time to celebrate the completion, to stop, to allow ourselves to be proud of what we had achieved, as individuals and a team. We’d traversed through a landscape we’d only dreamed of seeing on National Geographic channel, we’d lived alongside all matter of wildlife, we’d united as a team and got ourselves safely to the end.
Finish line now behind us. Relief, sensational relief. The job is done. No regrets. Our unconditional commitment to forward momentum had delivered us. Our resilience not to be beaten by the environment had prevailed, our stubbornness to remain positive and look for solutions at all times of controversy and challenge had served us well, we’d done what we’d set out to do, we’d succeeded, for us and our country folk, the thousands of Kiwis tracking us through the race. We hadn’t had a perfect race, we didn’t expect to, we knew there would be times out there when we would be tried and tested, but we were prepared for those times and we took them head on. It was what I’d sum up as an ultimate team performance, I couldn’t have asked for more from my team mates.
Did I fall in love with the Pantanal? I’m glad I have seen the Pantanal, I feel extremely lucky to have experienced it, to have lived a tiny part of my life in it, to know what is there, what lives there, what it’s about …
CLOSING & ADVENTURE RACING
I admire Shubi for hosting the race is such a remote and isolated location. It was a grand stage for an adventure race. I’m glad I did the race, I do feel fortunate to have had the experience, but it’s not the direction I’d like to see the sport go. Once in a while such an event probably has its place, but not all the time. The course and environment served our team well, clearly, but for most teams, the course was to hard, to difficult and to dangerous. It was mission impossible for them.
I’m not opposed to 7-days races, but they’re hard to get your head around when you’re expecting a 4-5 day race. That all said and done, I understand that running a race in such a seasonal location, a flood plain and on a limited budget, is difficult, and Shubi relied on people’s sense of adventure and exploration to tackle the course as best they could.
I’m pretty sure it’s the hardest course I’ve done, likely eclipsing Eco Challenge Fiji, which was just shy of 7-days. But Eco Challenge was a far more varied course, more dynamic, we spent a day on a river, two-days sea kayaking on the ocean, and the trekking and biking stages were all uniquely different. The Pantanal added additional challenge as we’d be in the same surroundings for days at a time, like we were stuck in time.
I don’t believe it was Shubi’s intention to create such a difficult race, I think it was a series of small mis-judgements that added up to a major problem. I’m fearful of Race Directors setting out to design the ‘hardest race ever’. Making a hard race is not difficult at all, there is no skill in that and it does little to develop the sport. While there are a few exceptions, my experience that any race over 500km becomes boring and bordering on pointless. The racing is diluted as random things enter the equation. I think 100-hours is more than enough time to have an exciting race and it means the course is achievable to more teams.
I also question if short course options are serving the sport well. I acknowledge that most teams in Pantanal were forced onto short course routes, including us, but I think they need to be removed as an option.
The original Adventure Racing events had one start line and one finish line, you either made it to the finish or you didn’t, but teams took pride in how much of the course they completed, if they couldn’t reach the finish. Granted, the courses used to be open longer, some events would have a 4-day winning time but the course would be open for 10. But a few crafty race directors cottoned on to the fact that it’d be far easier if teams that were behind the schedule or very slow, made their own way to the finish via a short cut, to save the organisation time and logistics recovering the teams off the course from various TA’s.
Alas, the short course was created. But I reckon it’s reached a point where it’s detrimental to the sport. I’d prefer to see courses designed in a way that either A/ most teams finish the course, B/ those that don’t, get transported back to the end from the TA they reach when the course closes. It does add a layer of logistics to the event management but when you compare the work created in Brazil in recovering teams and course changes, I suspect removing short course options will in most instances, be more efficient.
I dislike the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality the sport has these days with teams crossing the finish line from an endless number of options, multiple short courses. I see all these images of teams celebrating on the finish line and can’t help think to myself “but you didn’t finish”. I think many teams line up at races now knowing full well they’ll be on a short course, that they’ll finish some variation of the race, which is actually creating more issues for the management of events, and terribly confusing for supporters and media.
One start line, one finish line, get as far as you can in the time available. It’s simple for everyone to understand, especially the people at home watching the tracking. Currently, most event tracking in the closing stages in a race requires a Ph.D. in Yellow Brick analysis to know what the hell is happening.
Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of Adventure Racing, the sport is still evolving, it’s not ultra polished and predictably professional, it demands people to be adaptable, to be humble, to keep it in perspective, I don’t really know.
What I do know is that a whole heap of people poured their heart and soul in providing the event and despite all the things that happened, or didn’t happen, or could or should have happened, I’m grateful for those efforts and I want to acknowledge their hard, very hard work.
Special thanks to Shubi and her family, the event staff and the people that made it happen.
Our team would also like to thank our sponsors, especially Seagate and thanks to all the event photographers that have captured the spectacle in film for us to reflect, special mention to our friend Alexandre Socci from Green Pixel. We’d also like to thank Philipe Campello for getting all our excess luggage onto the plane for no extra charge!
And finally, as I conclude the second book*** I have written this year! - I need to thank my revered team mates and friends. We did it, F@*K Yeah! …
TEAM SEAGATE SPONSORS
Seagate, Rocky Mountain Bicycles, Absolute Wilderness Freeze Dry Meals, GU Energy, Wildside Travel, inov8 footwear, Gloworm Lighting, Tineli, Em’s Power Cookies & Bars, ReadySetGo, Antichafe, Bowater Toyota, Nordenmark, Revelate Designs, Bridgedale Socks, Torpedo7, 2B Insect Repellent, Check out Nathan's website: www.nathanfaavae.nz
*** my other book “Adventurer at Heart” can be purchased online at www.pottonandburton.co.nz - just click on the Potton and Burton link!