Polly Taylor had more than 169 highly-motivated rivals to conquer when she tackled the Speight's Coast to Coast multisport race last weekend. The 54-year-old Marlborough designer had some personal demons to put behind her.
This year's race went well for the three-time Coast to Coast competitor. Competing in the two-day individual section, Taylor finished a highly creditable 125th overall, was 29th woman overall and came home second in her 50-59 age group.
But the real drama had taken place just over 12 months earlier. After failing to finish the 2011 event when her kayak snapped in half on the treacherous Waimakariri River during high winds, Taylor bounced back to win her age grade in the 2012 event by more than four hours, then set about preparing to go even faster in 2013.
That was when disaster struck. During a kayak training paddle with friends on Marlborough's Wairau River, four days before the Coast to Coast, Taylor was fortunate to escape with her life.
She explains. "I remember coming around a corner and another paddler saying 'i'm not going down that chute'.
"The others said, ‘you chicken' . . . and went for it. I went with them and saw one of the guys go under the trees and I thought ‘this is drowning stuff' . . . so I completely changed tack, hit my right rudder and paddled like hell, but the current just basically flicked me straight under the trees. I tried to get out of it but my kayak got hooked in the trees, and I was trapped inside, under the water.
"I kept getting pushed up against the trees underneath and I thought ‘s..., this is it'. I don't know how I got out but my leg was trapped in there. I managed to hang on to a branch and get some mouthfuls of air, then the two guys swam over to save me.
"Somehow I got out, but I had torn my calf. Then I got blood clots. It was just a nightmare."
Having to withdraw from the Coast to Coast at such a late stage was disheartening, but Taylor wasn't about to quit.
"Because I had already entered, my entry went over to the following year so I thought ‘OK girl, you're going to have to get down this river [Waimakariri] . . . and it wasn't easy.
"I bought a ‘tippy' boat to try and learn some really good skills. In January I started going down the river and I have to admit the frogs were certainly jumping around in my tummy for a bit. And I kept falling out.
"I said to myself ‘you don't fall out of kayaks, what the hell's going on?'
"But I kept going down the river. I had a kayaking coach the whole time with me . . . just trying to perfect it. Find out why I was falling out. It was to get over that fear of drowning.
"My last trip down the river [two weeks before the Coast to Coast] was in a howling southerly storm and I was thinking ‘why am I doing this, I can't handle this'. But I was determined . . . I kept thinking the jet boat was going to have to get us, because this is not funny.
"But I got down swim-free and I went ‘I think I may have got it, finally'.
But there was still the race itself to come, with the added pressure of being among fellow competitors and with different river conditions to overcome, plus the nightmarish memories of that terrifying day on the Wairau.
"When I got in the kayak . . . I have to admit I was wanting to vomit, the nerves were there. But I just said, treat each corner as a new adventure.
"Each wave, deal with it, then move on to the next one. I've never seen so many people fall out of kayaks as what they did this year . . . low river but big wave trains.
"Just coming into the entrance to the gorge, I remembered my kayak coach had said to me to take chute three. I told him I had never done chute three, I always do chute one, but he said no, I could do it.
"Then three people fell out in front of me . . . I looked over at chute three and there was a helicopter hovering above it. I thought ‘you're a bit low, I'm not going to get water all over my face'. Then I saw five kayakers falling out on chute three and I went no, I'm not going to be No 6', so I changed tack and headed for chute one.
"Yes, it was bumpy but I railed really hard and got through the big wave and a guy on the bank said "that's the best I've seen today'. And I just did that the whole way down the gorge."
Despite a hiccup at the kayak/cycle transition when organisers put the wrong number up and her support crew didn't know she was on the bank, Taylor turned in an "awesome" 70km ride to Sumner Beach where she was greeted by a smiling Robin Judkins, who presented her with a red rose, the product of a Taylor suggestion that women finishers get something different than the obligatory can of the sponsor's product.
Although having to take second place to the women's grade 50-59 to Aucklander Sally Wood, she was happy with her placing, especially given Wood was the world sprint distance triathlon champion for her age group in 2012.
Taylor's close call last year wasn't her first training mishap. In 2009, while preparing for an ironman she fell in a bunch of cyclists, breaking her pelvis and cracking her hip socket. So she is used to coming back from adversity.
"The Coast to Coast this year was about proving to myself, it doesn't really matter if you are near drowning, you pick yourself up and you say ‘I've got to get over this fear' . . . I'm pretty lucky here.
"I've got Steve Rooney and Dave Craig for guys to ride with and they, along with Kathy Hudson, are my support team. Plus the amazing Topsport kayak coaches. But I've also got a really good coach, Cam Carter in Auckland, who I've had for six or seven years.
"Without Cam I doubt whether I would have got through the broken pelvis, that took a year plus out of my life, learning to walk again. Most people would have chucked it in, to be honest."
Despite her earlier Coast to Coast experiences, the 2014 version had a different feel.
"When I won my age group in 2012 it was pretty cool, my sisters were there, it was just a big party really. This one was different. It wasn't until I got off the bike and put my foot on the sand [at Sumner] that I though ‘holy crap, I've just gone from the west coast to the east coast in two days, running, biking and kayaking. And that's when it hit me.
"It's the first time I had thought ‘God, you old girl, you've just gone from one side of the country to the other'.
"But at the end of the day the race is only the icing on the cake. It's the training, it's meeting the wonderful people, all over New Zealand. You run and paddle together, yet you don't know their names, but that's what it's all about, it's comradeship . . . than there's the banners on the side of the course with your name on it.
"The one that really got me, and these guys have been there every year . . . they are farmers and you can only get to where they are by boat.
"Every year they have their umbrella, their chilly bins, binoculars and when I first saw them in 2012 they yelled ‘Go Polly' and they had their Hawkesbury Road merino rugby jerseys on.
"I got the biggest buzz of my whole life on that . . . this year they were there again so I paddled right over to them and said 'you guys are fantastic', they said ‘where were you last year?'. It's just amazing."
- The Marlborough Express