A ten minute gap between first and second over the line is possibly as close as you may get to a photo finish in this sport. 72 hours and 30 minutes after the Merrell Adventure Addicts set off amongst 24 international and local teams, they brought the South African flag proudly across the line to win the Adventure Racing World Series event, Expedition Africa 2015.
Merrell recently rebranded their image. “We will always ‘Get Outside’ and now we get to ‘Out. Perform.” Said team captain Graham ‘Tweet’ Bird. “This race was all strategy. Once we got the route overview at the briefing, we knew how to attack the course.”
Adventure racing sends athletes out there where a tourism brochure wouldn’t dare. This race put competitors on a bicycle along 290km of district roads and forests, 115km trekking over mountains, across nature reserves and plantations, past many bemused homesteads, 45km down rivers on kayaks and through rapids on rafts, into an 800m caving labyrinth and plunging over waterfalls down a 1km canyon.
Teams are provided maps with a scale of 1:50 000 at stages along the way and must navigate themselves to checkpoints.
Race organisers Kinetic had cleverly designed a course that incorporated a dark zone which meant the race was intentionally divided into two. With the race starting on Sunday, no team could begin the kayak and rafting leg before 06h30 on Tuesday, which meant that those who arrived earlier than that at the transition had to rest. Those who arrived the earliest had the most rest.
Team Merrell opted to start slow, taking it easy on the body through the first few legs before picking up speed on a long cycle stretch to bring them first in to the transition area where they got to enjoy a good rest overnight.
From the next morning, knowing they had a full non stop 25 hours ahead of them, they dominated the field, keeping their lead through the water, up the mountains with tricky trek and bike legs and into the final trek starting around midnight, by far the most taxing in terms of navigation. Here another cunning plan by the organiser ensured many supporters of the team also didn’t sleep that night.
The final route had a checkpoint on the far bank of a dam. Swimming 300m across the dam would cut off 5km from the 34km hike.
At 04h20, Team Merrell reached the dam with Team Estonia close behind. It was pitch dark and close to freezing.
Around the world, those watching on the live gps tracking site overlaid on Google maps saw their teams choose the longer route and gasped. “It was unanimously decided to go around and it was the right decision.”said Tiny Don Sims. “If we’d swum at that stage we would have collapsed with the cold and not been able to move afterwards.”
What followed was four hours of anxious and obsessive screen watching as the two teams raced each other around the dam and over a mountain, the navigators trying desperately to pick the best lines, working blind in the dark night, and the rest of the team trying desperately to believe that they were moving forward in the right direction. This is where the Estonian team, containing the brothers who are three time World Rogaining Champions, could have trumped them, but Tweet’s navigation experience and the team’s determination and allowed them to pull ahead.
“Our team worked brilliantly as a unit. We just continued to focus on racing to the best of our abilities and race our own race. Grant Ross and Robyn Kime have fitted in perfectly and we look forward to building and strengthening our team performance as we prepare for XPD in Australia and AR World Championships in Brazil.”
With the continuing support and shared vision of Merrell, the Addicts will continue to be driven by the “OUT. PERFORM.” philosophy of Merrell. Other team sponsors include PVM Nutritional Science, Black Diamond head torches, Extreme Lights, Giant Bicycles, Squirt Bicycle Lube and Island Tribe Sunscreen as well as Buttanutt spreads and Llama Bars.