On Wednesday, 9th June the Merrell Adventure Addicts crossed the line to win the 2015 Expedition Africa in Swaziland. Herewith thoughts from the four individuals who united to form a powerful team.
Graham “Tweet” Bird:
From the moment you arrive at the venue, you shut out the outside world. You give your undivided attention to your team and preparing. The race demands it. You team mates demand it. Don’t do it properly and it makes your life while racing harder. You pack and organize boxes. You work through the briefing notes and make sure you understand them fully. You plot maps and select the ideal route. You plan strategy. You get as much sleep and rest as you can. You prepare your mind for the journey ahead – the relentless non stop concentration of moving forward as quickly as possible, the pain, the ups and downs.
When you start, the whole world revolves around your team and yourself as you work to get from point to point as fast as possible. Looking after mind and body to ensure that you get to the finish. You shut off from everything else and you begin to understand that nothing you face is impossible. Everything is achievable. As long as you believe you can. You do.
Upon finishing, your mind and body shut down. The sensation of not having to move. Not having to hurry. Not having to worry about three other individuals. Not having to concentrate anymore. For days this is your sole purpose. It then stops. Just stops. Turns off. Absorbing everything you have seen, felt and achieved. It is overwhelming. It takes time to switch back into the world, to reintegrate and adjust back to the normal. When you do, it is with a new and rejuvenated perspective. After each race, you come back a different person and with a better understanding of the normal. Few comprehend this and it is impossible to explain what all the fuss and drama is about. Do an Adventure Race, and you will.
So Expedition Africa has come and gone. Just over a week since our Team crossed the line in Swaziland to win our third Expedition Africa. A race that was effectively in two parts. The “tour” to the dark zone and then the “sprint race” from the “restart” to the finish. It did not really matter how you tackled the first 47 hours, provided you got into the dark zone, got a few hours rest and were on the line for the restart at 06h30 on Tuesday morning. Whatever time gaps you gained was nullified. Counted for nothing. The trade off between pushing too hard and taking too much out of the bodies vs. more rest at the dark zone was a fine line. A strategy. Ours worked brilliantly. Due to myself not feeling well in the first 7 hours of the race, we slowed down and didn’t chase the lead. We settled into our own race. Our own pace. We focused on what we had to do and the teams around us. We looked after ourselves and then we pushed hard for the final 25 hours. We raced well.
After taking a step back from competitive sport over the past year, it was refreshing to jump back in at a top level. I was nervous and did not know what to expect. Did I still have what it took to compete? Did I still have the desire? Did I still have the motivation to push through the dark places? Did I still want to? I got to answer all these questions in the first few hours of the race. I hit a wall 2 hours after the start. I was not well. Weak. Nauseous. I was in a dark place. After only two hours! F…..k!
My team was brilliant. They took the map, and my backpack and allowed us to slow to my pace. It was a dark place in my head for a few hours. I was alone with my questions and it was only me that could answer these. Maybe the best way to comeback after time off? After some stern words to myself and the body adapting back to the relentless rigours of racing, I emerged as a competitive and passionate adventure racer again. It is my Soulfood.
Don and myself have done many races together and have a great understanding and bond. We know even with out speaking. Racing with Robyn and Grant was an unknown. How would the dynamic work? There is no way to know this until you are deep in an adventure race. We now know. We came together as individuals and left as a strong powerful unit. The team worked brilliantly together. We still have a lot to improve on, but the foundations are laid and I look forward to the road ahead as we push to achieve the goals we have set for the team and ourselves this year. First goal achieved. To Robyn, Grant and Don, thank you and it is a privilege to race with you guys.
To Stephan and Heidi and the whole Kinetic crew, thank you for a wonderful race and week in Swaziland. What you have done for Adventure Racing in South Africa is inspirational. To do an expedition race on our own doorstep is special. Very special.
To Merrell, thank you for standing by me and the team over the past year as we took time out. We continue to and will always live our lives by your brand promise: “Merrell empowers people to challenge themselves in the great outside. Achieve. Never Settle. Hit the Trail. OUT.PERFORM.”
“Tiny” Donovan Sims:
Expedition Africa this year was so much more important to the Addicts, and myself, than previous years.
Firstly for the Addicts it was a platform on which we were to launch our new squad and preparation for World Champs.
Secondly for me, it was my first real test since my illness and I needed to see how I would handle the rigours of racing at this level.
This year’s event held in Swaziland was a race of strategy and timing, with dark zones put in place that teams would hit in the dark no matter how hard they raced. Our plan to start slower than usual and let the front bunch wear each other down, while we idled waiting for the right moment to up the pace seemed to have been the right game plan.
Racing with Grant and Robyn for the first time was also a new component to add into our mix and I think that the slower start might have frustrated the two youngsters a little, seeing at how they were racing with the Addicts and they are usually pushing with the front bunch.
After a few hours of running ( up and over Sibebe Rock ) , moving through freezing gorges, paddling along chilly dams and rivers and cycling up never ending climbs we arrived at the dark zone first. We were not too hassled about our placing at this stage, our main focus was to get there with enough time to eat and SLEEP. Which we did, for 7 hours ( crazy I know ).
The next morning was game on, we always knew the second “race start” was going to be the most important. It was a paddle start which suited our team really well, we managed to open a small lead on the following teams which we were able to hold onto up until the last leg, a hiking leg with nav from hell. Captain Tweet was once again on point on this leg, making one error which we quickly fixed and we were back in the mix. The Estonian team caught up to us on this leg and we swopped the lead several times in the last few hours ( giving our followers back home mild heart failures ). It was eventually Tweet’s call to head for the saddle and not the ridge, as the Estonians did, that seemed to give us the edge. Running as if we had stolen something we found our way at the last check point before a short 300m run into the finish. At this point we were not sure if we had held off the Estonians or not and it was with huge relief that we heard the 2015 title was ours.
I believe that our squad of Graham, Hanno, Grant, Robyn and myself have a really good chance of achieving our goals set out earlier this year. Judging by the way Grant and Robyn performed in this race ( sailing through as if they were seasoned pros ) , it was obvious that we had made the right choice with bringing them in.
A huge thank you to our sponsors for all the support you shower us with, especially to Merrell, we crossed the finishing line with not even as much of a blister or hot spot, proof again the we our in good hands when it comes to our shoes and apparel.
To Heidi and Stephan congrats on yet another hugely successful event, well done.
To my team mates well done again guys, I`m really looking forward to doing this again sometime.
I am proud to now call myself an adventure racer – a member of the crazy family of hard-core, down-to-earth, slightly masochistic, outdoor-loving adventurous spirits. In their parallel lives they are businessmen, accountants, mountain guides, pilots, IT geeks, soldiers, students, surveyors, ski instructors, secret agents, engineers, supermodels, teachers, doctors, athletes, nurses, mothers or come from other completely different walks of life. Perhaps the only thing the members of this eclectic family share is an excessive love of life and a challenge.
Gathering in Swaziland you could spot the adventure racers by a glint in their eyes which I didn’t yet understand. Months ago when the opportunity to do this race came up I thought it sounded like a great idea and excitedly agreed, but as the start loomed I wasn’t so sure. “Are you ready for this?” everybody asked. I expected the race to be about 6 hours of pleasant run/hiking (while my body was fresh) followed by approximately 70 hours of constant pain – diluted of course by beautiful scenery, the odd adrenaline rush and a few good laughs along the way – but I still wasn’t sure I could do it.
I didn’t anticipate how immersed I would become in this journey. How quickly and completely the rest of the world would vanish. Throughout my 72 and a bit hours of racing my mind drifted between the present moment and the next 20 minutes ahead. Uphill – time to walk, time to eat, should I have my last llama bar now or keep it for later?… Here’s a good looking stream, time to drink and fill up the bottles… The Kloof is coming up – note to self – no hesitating at the jumps! … Just keep paddling, paddling, paddling – The take-out is by that red light – almost there – Yes! …I’m getting cold, should I put on my fleece, or windbreaker, or both? … In between chatting with team mates and brief thoughts were long periods of mental silence – when my senses were alive and I just experienced the journey unencumbered by thoughts of any kind.
In my pre-race anticipation I also hadn’t imagined how good the high-points of the rollercoaster of energy levels could be. What I imagined as 70 hours of constant pain turned out to be 66 hours interspersed with a few very difficult periods. But after each low period there would come a high where I felt strong again and ready to take on anything. From stumbling through the grass barely able to keep our eyes open and focused on the spots of our headlamps, we broke into a run as the sun rose and didn’t stop for the two and a half hours which it took us to finish. And then I had the best sleep in the world.
Thank you to Kinetic and everyone else involved in organising this great event, to Merrell for making it possible for us to be there, to my team Graham, Don & Grant for guiding me through this amazing adventure, and to all the other adventure racers for welcoming me in to your awesome community. I can’t wait for the next adventure.
One of the biggest things I love about adventure racing is the fact that it is not necessarily the young, fit and professional that will necessarily win a race.
If your team can combine as many of the factors that lend themselves to speed in adventure racing, good navigation, consistency and always a lot of luck, then anyone can stand a great chance of winning a race.
There was not much that was predicted from this race for me, and I went into the race keeping my expectations to a minimum.
For this reason I had no idea how our relatively newly put together team would perform, where we were aiming in the field, how tough the Swaziland course and terrain would be, how my recently stitched up leg would hold out, and even how any of the other teams from all over the world would compete. A relatively clean slate of expectations.
My clean slate stemmed from the fact that I, as well as the team were going into the unknown in this race. Uncertain of how we would perform together, and for me I had never raced at the spearhead of the race, so I had no idea how that would be compared to my usual casual racing style.
I realised it was not all that different, other than the factor of consistency. Your progress just needs to be consistent, keep moving, less stopping. The more you move forward the better. And then the consistent navigation. Far fewer mistakes in this field obviously helps, and our great and trustworthy navigator Tweet consistently helped the team move in the right direction.
The race was tough, and especially the mountain biking, a discipline that I usually favour. No free kilometres, an amazing amount of climbing and relatively long legs. But a coping mechanism for me was the fact that I tried not to make any pre-conceived ideas about how tough the actual legs would be, so it was really a game of relativity. I found majority of the legs really enjoyable, and Swaziland an amazing place to explore.
What added to the toughness was the position we found ourselves in, being chased by the pack for the majority of the race. We had no idea how far back any of the teams were for most of the race, so we just had to put the foot down all the time to try stay ahead.
Once again with no expectations of who would be the competition, a relatively unknown competitor’s lights joined us on the last trek. Moving quicker than us overland, made for a really exciting and nerve racking last few hours of racing. With us hitting our checkpoints more consistently, but them covering the distance quicker, there was a fair amount of jostling for first place. And as the glow of the rising sun appeared when we reached the third to last checkpoint, we decided to make our move and make a dash for it. A dash at an amazing pace that lasted 2 hours, up and over the last ridgeline toward the Lugogo Sun finish line. We had no idea if we had reached the line first, but the victory was oh so sweet when we had realised what we had done, so unexpectedly.
Really a dream come true finishing as the top team in an Adventure Racing World Series Race, feel it has not fully sunk in yet even still. But I look forward to the next edition, probably with a few more expectations.