Crossing the finish line at the Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge
Earlier this month, we – two normally desk-bound staff members from Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office – crossed the finish line of one of the world’s top multi-day adventure races, the Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge.
The challenge has been held most years since 2003 and is also featured in the Lonely Planet book 1000 Ultimate Adventures. When the opportunity arose for a couple of LP staff to participate and bring our product to life we jumped at it, perhaps not fully considering the consequences. With less than eight weeks to train, we’d be covering 350km over five days of racing by bike, foot and kayak, on and around the rugged west coast of Australia’s island state, Tasmania. The upside was that we would be exploring some incredible scenery, and topping it off with a final day of racing in Tasmania’s capital, Hobart –one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2013.
Neither of us had any experience in adventure racing, though we’re both happy to have any excuse to be outdoors. Once we’d digested what we’d signed up for, training started in earnest. Over the next seven weeks, we explored the hills, trails and waters in our home state Victoria, trying to clock up as many kilometres as we could, and learning basic kayak techniques. Hours before and after work saw us practising capsizes in Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, plus crash-courses in orienteering, twilight mountain-biking, early morning runs, and weights sessions in the gym. And then we were flying to Launceston, Tasmania, to get stuck into the challenge itself.
Launceston enjoys a healthy rivalry with Hobart, and plays the part of beautiful little sister well. Just outside the town centre is the superb Cataract Gorge, carved out by the South Esk River and host to several walking tracks. However, with briefings, welcome dinners and fittings for bikes and kayaks, we had little time to explore Launceston and were soon whisked away to start day one in the tiny rural town of Mole Creek. After some tips from the locals, the first ‘mystery’ leg of the challenge was revealed as we cut our way through a hefty log using a two-person saw! Over the next five days, we averaged around eight hours and 70-plus kilometres a day as we ran, trekked, rode and paddled our way through the Tasmanian wilderness. From lakes, to rivers, to oceans (kayaking), from mountains, to rock faces, to city streets (running) and through forests, sand dunes, and mountain trails (riding) we covered in five days what most visitors would be lucky to see in five weeks.
Navigation is a huge part of any adventure race , and each evening we’d map out the next day’s routes, choosing which order we would collect the mandatory check-points, and if it was worth going for an optional check-point. These ‘optionals’ had time-bonuses attached, but as they were often in even more challenging locations than the mandatory ones, we mostly decided to leave them to the pros. There were three team categories: Elite Pairs (Olympians, Ironmen and professional or at least seasoned adventure racers), Enthusiast Pairs (into which we fell, but alongside mostly veteran adventurers and triathletes), and Enthusiast teams of three, who could swap one of their athletes at each transition area. Even choosing to stick mostly to mandatory checkpoints didn’t keep us literally out of the woods, with navigational errors leaving us bush-bashing through thick forest, or running in the wrong direction on a remote headland until we stumbled across what Georgie was adamant was dinosaur remains (David decided, perhaps less imaginatively, that it was probably a whale bone).
Day three was our ‘humpday’. Having identified kayaking as our weakness (with running our strength), we weren’t looking forward to the three kayak legs that would take us twice through Hells Gates, the notoriously shallow and dangerous channel entrance to Macquarie Harbour. The challenge proved as much mental as physical, and once safely through, we hoped the final two days would all be downhill. Unfortunately, our penultimate day kicked off with a 16km ascent in Mount Field National Park, to the ski fields, lakes and tarns dotted around alpine landscape. Having remained mostly fit and healthy over the first three days, we were probably overdue for bad luck on day four. Sure enough, a few kilometres into a 15-kilometre run, we were considering calling in the event helicopter to deal with what turned out to be a bad case of dehydration for Georgie. Thankfully, after around 90 minutes of identifying and fixing the problem, we managed to push on and record some of our best efforts on the subsequent bike and run legs.
Completing our first adventure race was euphoric. As we crossed the line in Hobart, having breezed through our final 5km run along the waterfront, through quaint Battery Point and the busy harbour, the hairs on our necks stood up and our spines tingled. To have experienced so much of the island state in just five days, to have seen so much stunning scenery, and to have survived – it’s a pretty good feeling. We’ve been fortunate to explore one of the world’s most beautiful corners, and we’ll certainly be going back again, and again. 1000 Ultimate Adventures? One down, 999 to go!