Kiwi adventurers atone in France
For Nathan Fa'avae, it was as much about redemption.
By his own admission, he'd messed up in Tasmania last year and lost a world championship title because of it.
But Fa'avae's a resilient individual. He's also one of the world's leading adventure racers. So when he led his Seagate team of fellow Nelsonians Trevor Voyce and Sophie Hart and Cantabrian Chris Forne across the finish line to win the recent adventure racing world championships in France, it was time to finally bury some haunting memories of 10 months earlier.
Seagate's triumphant 125hr 40min journey from L'Argentiere-la-Bess ee in the heart of the Ecrins National Park in the French Alps to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin around 500km away on the Mediterranean coast not only meant a satisfying sense of closure, it also handed Fa'avae his third, and Forne his second, world championship title.
Forne and Hart were with him in Tasmania when a four-hour time penalty for misplacing a GPS tracker early in the race, coupled with some frustrating mechanical bike issues, effectively dropped them from first to third place overall. Thule Adventure Team eventually claimed the 2011 title, with Team Silva second.
"Certainly for Chris, Sophie and I, we came away with a lot of disappointment," says Fa'avae. "It was still pretty fresh in our minds, because the 2011 world champs were only 10 months ago.
"So I guess just having that disappointment still relatively fresh and tender . . . in a lot of ways we were probably too scared not to win, you know. It was almost like we only had one option really, and that's all we focused on."
To eventually cross the finish line over three hours ahead of defending champions Thule (129hr 17min), with Team Silva (130hr 8min) third, also brought a huge sense of relief.
"All I could think of crossing the line was that I've finally secured the title again," Fa'avae explains.
"Obviously I was pretty happy and there was a lot of jubilation, but the real strong [emotion] for me was just the weight off my shoulders, that finally it's over, we've done it. It was just a real sense of closure and [being] at peace with that."
Memories of Tasmania clearly still simmered near the surface.
"I think a lot of it was largely, for me, the race in Tasmania, all the problems kind of started with a mistake that I made, which was really close to the start of the race.
"It was only a couple of hours into the race when I left the tracking device behind. And while there was quite a bit of controversy surrounding that whole thing, when you broke it down to the simple mechanics of it, I left the piece of equipment behind - you just couldn't deny that and as a result, it cost the team a world title.
"Sophie missed out on a world title last year that she probably deserved, so for this year, it was a great sense of relief and closure.
"Every race is different and I guess every major race you go to, you're obviously trying to win or get the best result. But there was definitely a [feeling of atonement] from last year when we totally believed we were the fastest team . . . but we just didn't get the result to prove it. This was our chance to prove probably more to ourselves than anybody that we are at that level and capable of winning the title."
Fa'avae's raced all over the world, in all sorts of conditions and over a variety of courses. But, he says, there was something unique about Seagate's latest adventure.
"I've never raced a course anything like that before. The race director, Pascal [Bahaud], was a former racer himself and what he wanted to do was organise a race in France that had a very wilderness kind of feel to it.
"His slogan for the race was Back to Nature and what he basically did was manage to string together a course that went from the mid-eastern part of France to the south-eastern part.
"We started in crampons and [with] ice axes and then five days later, we were paddling a kayak on the Mediterranean in 30 degree heat. So it was a great journey in that sense, but it was really tough. It was just unrelenting.
"The three guys in the team, [we're] all big strapping lads and we can carry big loads and we can carry our bikes. I guess our power wattage is pretty high, so a strength-based course suits us.
"Most of the time when the going got tough, we were like, ‘this is good for us' but there were a few moments in the race when it was like, ‘oh man, just give us a break . . . can we just do something easy, just for half an hour or so?' It was just all go the whole time."
Fa'avae says the Seagate team dynamic worked wonderfully, with everyone acknowledging and feeding off each other's strengths while also helping each other through times of weakness.
"Navigation is a pretty critical role and Chris is our lead navigator in our team now and he pretty much is just solely focused on getting us through the course as efficiently as possible. I'm in a backup navigation role, so he'll confer with me if there's some challenging navigation, but most of the time, he's pretty much doing that himself.
"Traditionally, I've been the lead navigator on teams and it frees me up to focus more on strategy and team management and just captaining the team.
"Sophie's got a really defined role in the team, because obviously there's a female in each team and when the chips are down, the stronger your female is, then the more chance you've got of succeeding.
"We're lucky enough to have, in my view, the strongest female in the sport at the moment, so it's a huge advantage having her in the team."
As the new boy in the team, Voyce also filled a critical role.
"Trev's just come on board and in all honesty, the [third] male member of the team is somewhat of a packhorse, because you don't really need any more navigational or leadership skills.
"So you really just need that person to be humble and sort of help where they can and just carry loads and just fill the gaps, and Trev's great at that."
Aside from the inevitable daily grind involved with negotiating 18 stages of trekking, mountainbiking, kayaking, rafting and vertical climbing through 500km of virgin French wilderness, Fa'avae and Voyce also unexpectedly suffered altitude sickness at various stages of the journey.
"Often it's not [about] one particular stage being tough, it's more about how you feel. When you're going through a low patch in an adventure race, that stage will pretty much become the hardest, or what you think's the hardest. Whereas, for someone else who's feeling good, it might actually be one of their favourite stages.
"I had altitude sickness on two high mountain treks, so for me the hardest part of the race was just having to deal with the effects of altitude while racing and while leading the race.
"It wasn't any fun at all and Trev had bit of a similar thing as well. He picked up a bit of a tummy bug somewhere through the race, probably partly just through the heat and the altitude and the hard racing.
"I think with him just being new to the sport, he might have just pushed himself a little bit too hard early on and just got himself into a bit of a hole which he couldn't recover from easily. So he just had to struggle for a few days just to get himself back to strength.
"They're the things that make it harder, just when you're not at 100 per cent health-wise."
After leadup wins in the Tierra Viva race in Patagonia, the Godzone Adventure race in New Zealand's South Island and the Ordos Adventure Challenge in China, Fa'avae says the team was well primed for a positive performance.
"When I look back on the race, I think it was a combination of our experience and pacing and the experience, I guess, of just managing ourselves and our team and our gear and everything through the race.
"We've had a great year so far. We've gone four from four with our international racing this year. We've got a really tight team that all get on really well as friends and I guess we're just at that level now where our communication's really open and honest, there's no fear of upsetting someone or saying the wrong thing."
For Hart, the 2011 women's Coast to Coast champion, she was genuinely staggered by the breathtaking nature of the course.
"Obviously I haven't done anywhere near as much racing as Nathan, but I thought it was one of the best races I've done," she says.
"The course, it's amazing what they managed to string together. The countryside we passed through was really stunning and obviously a lot of thought had gone into the course.
"Often with these races, they've got boring stages that are there just for the sake of linking up other really neat stages. There was none of that. Every stage was pretty spectacular and really challenging, so there were no easy [kilometres] to cover."
She says that the relief of keeping the pesky French at bay in their own playground overflowed into pure emotion at the finish line.
"We were just stoked. Racing in France against the French, it's their own backyard, they'd been training around that area and knew parts of the course really well.
"We knew that we'd be a hard team to beat, but the French in their own country . . . it was going to be really hard and we desperately wanted to win after Tasmania, after feeling like we were robbed. But it was just relief I think, knowing that we could do it and had done it."
There's little time to rest, however, with Team Seagate already preparing for their next adventure, the Wulong Mountain Quest in China, on October 10.
The Nelson Mail