Goldpine Go Fence team members Kieran Hickman, Jeremy McKenzie, James McCone and Sara O’Neill.
For eight days the four Goldpine Go Fence team members averaged just three hours sleep a day, as they competed in the gruelling GODZone Traverse adventure race across the South Island. It attracted a team with rural links, prompting Neal Wallace to ask Jeremy McKenzie and Kieran Hickman about adversity and how such events are relevant to rural mental health.
Mentally, one of the deepest, darkest spots for the Goldpine Go Fence adventure racing team hit in the small hours of the morning in a remote Northern Southland valley.
They were close to midway through the 710km GODZone Traverse adventure race across the South Island, from Jackson Bay in Westland to Brighton in the East Coast.
Having snatched two hours sleep, the four team members woke still sore and sleep deprived, with battered bodies and bleeding feet.
They had travelled 280km on about 10 hours of sleep and the relentless previous two stages, a 155km trek through the Fiordland wilderness and 90km mountain bike ride from Glenorchy, had taken its toll.
Awaiting them was another taxing 56km trek through Southland’s Eyre Mountains from the Mavora Lakes to Garston,
Team member Jeremy McKenzie said there was discussion about whether they should continue but after some running repairs to battered bodies and motivation restored, gear was shared around and the decision was made to continue.
Goldpine Go Fence consisted of McKenzie, a Marlborough viticulturist and wine maker, Kieran Hickman a cropping, sheep and beef farmer from Taimate in Marlborough, and Culverden dairy farmers James McCone and Sarah O’Neill.
McKenzie said they all have backgrounds in multi-sport or adventure racing, but were weekend warriors.
In addition to achieving their goal of a top 15 finish and the challenge of completing a mentally and physically taxing event, the team also wanted to promote the importance of physical activity and having interests off-farm in ensuring mental wellbeing.
McKenzie said it is a message their sponsor, Goldpine, is also keen to spread.
He said communication is vital in adventure racing but also in everyday life, especially in stressed or pressured situations,” McKenzie said.
During the race they constantly talked to each other.
“We did lots of talking about family, what we enjoy, what is happening, nutrition and ensuring teammates were eating and keeping up their electrolytes,” he said.
“We were making sure we were all on, that we kept each other in a good space whether it was jokes, games or just having a laugh.”
The team relied on each other.
“No one is better than each other, it’s a team and you can’t carry on without the team,” he said.
“It’s fundamentally the same as in life.”
Hickman agrees, saying in an adventure race team members need each other but for a farmer that team can be family members, neighbours, friends or professionals.
“You can find yourself in the deepest darkest place, tired and struggling to continue on, but team members look after each other and help you bounce out of that,” Hickman said.
While the race was the toughest he has been involved in, he said his lasting memory was during a 170km mountain bike leg that took racers into the alpine section on the Old Man and Old Woman ranges, which run parallel to the Clutha River between Alexandra and Roxburgh.
“We were up on top during the sunrise and I could see the light towards the East Coast, I could see the path to the finish line,” he said.
“For me mentally it flicked a switch and even though I was quite tired and we had several days to go, I could see we were on the homeward leg, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
During stage three, a 150km trek and pack raft leg through Fiordland, McKenzie said the team didn’t sleep for 36 hours until they hit the wall during the night, stopping for a four-hour nap under a rock ledge.
Spirits were lifted when they resumed racing in daylight and the warmth of the new day.
He said his lasting memory is packrafting on Lake Onslow, high in the hills between Roxburgh and the Maniototo, as the sun set and its effect on the colours on the mountains and surrounding landscape.
“It looked like a (artist) Grahame Sydney painting,” McKenzie said.
He also recalls noticing he was paddling harder, only to turn around and see his teammate asleep in the rear of the raft.
The tidal impact on the Taieri River meant it was closed during the night, forcing the team to delay until morning the final kayak leg across the Taieri Plains and up a gorge to the coastal settlement of Taieri Mouth because it was closed due to being tidal.
Once completed they made the final 18km coastal trek to Brighton, finishing last Saturday, seven days, 23 hours and 30minutes after leaving Jackson Bay.
They were 15th out of 62 starters, but just 33 teams finished the tenth ever staging of GODZone Traverse.
Hickman has raced four of those and says the unrelenting physical demands of this race, along with tight cut-off times by which you had to be at certain points, made this the toughest he has been involved in.
McKenzie said preparation for such events is built up through endurance from years of tramping and with a pack in the hills, rather than acquired through a short-term fitness regime.
“A lot of it is being out in that terrain and being able to handle carrying a heavy pack, moving through scrub, bush bashing and being steady on your feet as you move over tree roots and fallen trees, energy-sucking stuff,” he said.
This was the first race for this team, and McKenzie describes his teammates as incredibly tough, resilient and able.
They never lost their sense of humour and never took it personally when tension was heightened.
“Sometimes a spade has to be called a spade,” he said.
“Everyone knew if something came across the wrong way, it wasn’t meant to be taken that way, it is just the way it has to be.”
The 710km was split over 10 stages, consisting of 379km of mountain biking, 38km kayaking, 179km of trekking and 114km of pack rafting (inflatable rafts they carried in their packs).
Having finished the race and recovered, the team adjourned to a Dunedin restaurant to fulfil a longed-for steak dinner, complete with craft beer and a Central Otago Pinot Noir.
It’s what you do, having battered your body while racing for eight days.