"It's more than just a race, it's a real life experience."
That is how Jeremy McKenzie reflected after combining with fellow Marlborough multisporter Dan Moore and Nelson's Dan Busch and Naomi Whitehead as Team Absolute Wilderness NZ for a third place finish in the 2014 GodZone adventure race this week.
Relatively inexperienced leading into the event, the top of the south quartet were the surprise package as they completed 267km of mountainbiking, 114km of trekking, 101km of canoeing, 38km of kayaking and 9km of "coasteering" around the greater Kaikoura region in just four days six hours and 18 minutes to grab the final spot on the podium. Runners-up R&R Sport Torpedo 7 were 22 minutes quicker and winners Team Seagate, the 2013 world champions who have won all three GodZone's to date, a further 12 hours and 42 minutes in front.
Absolute Wilderness crossed the finish line in Kaikoura just before 7.30pm on Wednesday and soon after Moore said it was very satisfying, but somewhat strange for the race to be over.
"It is a pretty good feeling, it was quite a cool adventure, but it was a bit weird [crossing the finish line]. We'd been immersed in this 24/7 adventure for a few days and it was sort of funny for it to all come to an end.
"Physically I'm feeling a real buzz that we've finished, but I'm pretty drained."
The team flew under the radar of race organisers to be second behind Seagate in the early going. A basic error and a hole in an inflatable canoe at the start of stage seven on the Hurunui River were set-backs, but the gritty Marlborough and Nelson athletes paddled like demons to rejoin the chasing pack of five teams.
The team set the fastest time for the canoe leg and McKenzie said they showed "real determination" to reach the river mouth before the dark-zone cut-off. They sat in fourth for most of Wednesday's racing, but pushed as hard as they could until they were eventually rewarded on the 11th and last stage.
"On that last day we played a bit of strategy and took a two hour sleep in a wood shed and it was all on from there. When we came off that last trekking stage and onto the last mountain-bike, we knew where we were at. We saw another team in front of us on the hills so we just started to push harder and harder and coming into that last transition [we had almost caught] the two teams in front of us.
"We had a very slick transition, 11 minutes I think it was, got into our boats and within the first half hour we had reeled in the team in front of us. We were pretty pumped to get there."
A pod of dolphins swimming close beside them on that final 26km kayak to the finish helped take their minds of the physical strain on their bodies. And, once around the Kaikoura peninsula, McKenzie said they were able to really enjoy the last few kilometres.
"Surfing quite big swells into Kaikoura it was just an amazing setting. The sun was coming in and glaring off the sea, it was pretty surreal after you've done the circuit through massive mountains and gone from source to sea.
"We also had a lot of local people watching us and at the finish line yelling with signs. I think we were sort of the local team for Kaikoura and that was pretty cool."
Along with the canoe leg, both Marlborough athletes singled out the traverse of Mt Tapuae O Uenuku, where the team came up and over the peak as the sun rose, as a highlight of the race. And, compared to other racing he had done, Moore said the camaraderie between all the teams was something that stood out. However, he was emphatic about what the best part of the event was.
"[It's] the shared experience of a continued adventure and, apart from it being a race, you just cross all these incredible landscapes . . . the other thing that happens is you go through this team experience where you form a group culture that gets you through. It's really cool to see that develop over the race."
McKenzie and Moore agreed the team worked really well together and third was a very good result that exceeded their expectations. Although they were going into the unknown somewhat, McKenzie said they felt they would be a highly competitive unit.
"I think we knew we were pretty strong across the board. Each of us brings really good strengths to the team.
"We pushed really hard and [confirmed that], everyone knew how to suffer because we've been there before and that's the key thing for these sorts of races . . . the four of us are all mentally tough, we know what it takes to be under the pump and still perform."
The team proved very popular with people following the race on-line, as well as the other athletes, and McKenzie wanted to thank everyone for the "amazing support" they received before, during and after the event. Unsurprisingly, they also had plenty of positive feedback on their performance, several people even encouraging them to attend the World Championships in Ecuador in November. Moore said they would "let this soak in" before making any calls, but confirmed they were all keen to race together again. However, with all four leading busy lives away from competitions, when and where that might happen will be something they need to work through.
As for when they would next be getting back on a bike, in a boat or slipping on their running shoes, the Marlborough duo said it would be a few days at least before that would be happening. In typical fashion, though, McKenzie said he had been hanging out to go pig hunting, while the Villa Maria winemaker will almost be straight into the grape harvest.
There in no doubt GodZone is not for the faint-hearted and McKenzie and Moore admitted knowing how to suffer for long periods of time was key to doing well. More importantly, however, they were certain that choosing to take part had been a life changing decision.
"All the multisport races I do and things like Ironman, a lot of that is about you and what you get out of it," said McKenzie. "In a race like this, it's a lot more about the memories and experience you gain, there's such a big element of bonding and team-work. I really think it translates into life and you can really get inspired by it, that's the key for me, it also allows you to give back. We've done stuff at Renwick and Havelock Schools and at St Joseph's down here, it's all that sort of stuff as well."
Moore expressed a similar feeling.
"I work at Outward Bound and a lot of people talk about that being a pretty life-changing experience, I think it's similar with a race like this. Doing it for the first time, it expands your perceptions of what you can do and that is pretty cool."
- The Marlborough Express