Saturday, June 6, 2009

More than a race - The 3 Peaks Challenge

I must admit, I am a sucker for an unusual race. Whether it is the arduous 45km ‘6 Foot Track Marathon’, the ‘Tough Blokes Challenge’ that involves scaling tyre walls and wading through quicksand like mud, the Great Nosh ‘rock-climbing’ event or adventure racing, I will give any event a bash as long as it involves some sort of great love.

So when I saw a feature for the 3 Peaks Challenge in an Alpha magazine, I couldn’t resist the temptation to look further into it. The picture showed a sailing crew, leaning over their craft, around a whitewash of spray and waves. An adventure on the wild ocean and ruggedness of Tasmania!! What a way to spend my Easter holidays!

My searching started with the Internet, where I quickly found the race homepage. It’s in Tasmania...great!! It involves sailing and running...I can handle that!! It’s reasonably cheap... fantastic!! I was able to put my details down on the website to register my interest in being a runner on one of the crews. At this stage it was definitely, get in a team first, and worry about the details later. Typically Brendan!

To my surprise, about a month later, I began to get phone calls from various Tasmanians wanting to enlist my services. It was at this stage that I began to ask questions about the race. How long are the runs? Do I have to know how to sail? Will I get sea sick? All these were answered, and a clear picture of the race conditions was forming. It wasn’t all beer and skittles. There could be snow, there could be gale force winds, there could be sick buckets everywhere! But I’m never one to take a backward step from an adventure! I considered my options (being in demand has some advantages) and decided to go with team “Apollonius”, a 41 foot yacht, ahead of much smaller and quicker catamarans. The reasons being, I wanted comfort, and they reassured me that my sailing expertise (or lack of!) would not be required while on the boat...I liked the sound of that!

We were in a category known as the ‘fully crewed monohull’, which in sailing terms means a crew of 6 men and 2 runners in a boat with only one hull. The ‘cats’ are in the ‘multihull’ and the real hard core competitors are in a ‘racing category’ made up of only 3 sailors and 2 runners (the original race format). In our category there were 4 boats.

The race is a non-stop event that involves 3 legs of sailing and 3 legs of running, each involving a large mountain climb. The runners are paired (done for safety I think) and must run together. The first leg starts at the Port Dalrymple Sailing Club at Beauty Point (40 minutes out of Launceston on the Tamar River). From there we cross the Bass Straight and sail into Lady Baron on Flinders Island (a distance of 90 nautical miles) where the runners set off on their first leg, a 65km road and trail run incorporating the climb of Mt Strzelecki. From there, runners return to the boat, and off on the next sailing leg we go; a 145 nautical mile trip down the east coast of Tasmania to the Freycinet Peninsula. The runners there disembark for another run, this time a 35km run, taking in Mt Freycinet and a huge amount of climbing. Once back to the boat, we continue to sail down the coast (100 nm) to Constitution Dock in Hobart where the runners take on the might of Mt Wellington and back! The idea is that the runners recover while we are sailing and the sailors sleep while the runners run. I was later to find out that it’s rather different to that in reality. The runners throw up while sailing and the sailors get drunk while the runners are running is a more accurate description!

Day 1: On arrival at Launceston airport I was greeted by a fellow who rather looked liked Santa Claus! On our introductions, I was relieved to find out he was the skipper of our boat. We drove back to his house, and after a hearty meal and a detailed brief of what to expect during the race, I went to the bedroom to sort my gear out. To my great shock, I realised that I had left my running shorts at home, and only had my tights to run in! A quick call to my fellow runner, John, and I thankfully was promised that there would be some running shorts for me the next day. Talk about amateur hour!

Day 2: After a nervous sleep, I awoke to the crispness of the early morning Tasmanian chill. We had some breakfast and packed the car with the supplies for the days ahead and drove down to the Port Dalrymple Yacht Club where the runners had to have their gear checked to see that we had all the required equipment. This gear had to be carried at all times on the runs and included a sleeping bag, thermals, waterproof clothes and other miscellaneous survival gear. We then had to attend a compulsory briefing where we were told about the rules and the weather conditions. Soon after that, I set my eyes for the first time on the vessel that I would spend the next 4 days on...the “Apollonius”. Here I also met my fellow runner John (a Tamanian), and the (motley) crew, skippered by Julian. The crew had vast experience. Each of them had done the 3 Peaks before, along with many others races such as the Sydney to Hobart. I knew I was in good hands. I was shown where I was to sleep, how I could strap myself in so I wasn’t thrown around the yacht and the uhummm... bathroom facilities of the yacht. It was much smaller than I expected and required some serious balancing and calisthenics to get in. Suffice to say there was definitely a ‘sit down only’ policy while on the water!

After setting up my little spot on the yacht, and while the crew were busy getting all the sails and ropes ready, we had a couple of hours to kill before the start. John and I walked to the start area where much to my astonishment, there was a festival put on especially for the 3 Peaks race. As I found out, the Tasmanian folk take their sailing quite seriously and there was everything from rides, stalls, bands and every man and their dog was there to see the start. This is a big event in Tasmania.

Soon after, I made my way back to yacht where the crew had finished preparing the boat. We were soon to start. I was allowed to stay on deck during the start as long as “I kept out of the bloody way”! I never realised how important the start of a yacht race was. I thought what it wouldn’t matter in a yacht race that goes for 4 days, surely a few minutes lost at the start wouldn’t matter. Oh, how I was wrong! It’s worse than the start of the City 2 Surf! Every yacht wanting to get away in ‘clean air’ and get down the river as quickly as possible. My sailing education had begun. A few minutes of cruising around the start area, and we heard the cannon blast (a roll of lit toilet paper, thankfully) which indicated the start. Off we went! The wind wasn’t great, but the boat was travelling at a fair speed. I was asked to be ‘rail meat’ so dutifully obliged. This in layman’s sailing terms involves dangling as much of your body weight as possible over one side of the yacht to keep it from capsizing! As we whizzed up the Tamar, we saw all the other competitors jostling for clean air and the spectator crafts were everywhere! It really did feel like we were part of something really special. Once out of the Tamar we continued to make good speed. It was here, out in Bass Strait, where I would be tested for seasickness. Thankfully, I felt fine, a little queasy at times, but was able to manage it. I also discovered that the continual rocking of the boat makes you incredibly sleepy! I laid down for my first nap and found it incredibly easy to fall asleep, apart from the occasional knock of the boom or the jackhammer noises of the winches waking me up.

I awoke a couple of hours late to join the crew on deck and spent the next couple of hours with the boys taking in the incredible night sky and open water. The stars where absolutely amazing, a full moon was out (being Easter) and the seas and winds were just ideal. We were making good time to our first destination, cruising along with a nice ‘tail wind’. I learnt that sailors don’t really talk much, they conserve their speech for the moments that really matter. I made some small talk and got to know the crew while out on deck.

Day 3: We reached Cape Baron in the early hours of the morning, and set off in the splendour of dawn, with the sun just beginning to rise. We were amazed how close the yachts were together and how far the catamarans had gotten out in front. As we were just starting our run, we ran past a crew (from a cat) who were just finishing their run! Off we went, and I for one, was finally glad to get running after being cramped up in a little cabin for nearly a day. John and I were chalk and cheese as far as runners go. This made for an interesting pairing. He was very fastidious with his preparation, while I was much more slap bang. Every hour John would have a walking break and mix up his little GU and magnesium mix and make sure his pockets were full of little bits of energy food. John was your classic ultra runner, not particularly fast, but could go all day at the same pace. I’m sure you all know me by now, I like to get out quick and give it all i’ve got before collapsing in a heap at the end!

The run on Flinders was beautiful, flat dirt road for the first 30km before hitting the massive climb up Mt Strzelecki. We were greeted 5km into our run by a local Flinders Island resident and Lions Club member, Kevin, who volunteered to be our crew (in his truck) for the journey. He was a lovely guy, offered us water and chocolates for nearly the entire journey of the run, and boy did we need him! It was clear that the island’s residents don’t really get much to do during the year and 3 Peaks is definitely a highlight! During the run, I spoke to Kevin a lot about life on Flinders and it gave me a great appreciation of this little community in the middle of Bass Strait.

During the run, I was interviewed by a journalist from the Launceston Examiner. What a site it was, a balding 40 year old journalist, pen and notepad in hand, asking and writing down answers on the run! He did well to keep up with us, I must say.

The climb up Mt Strzelecki was gruelling, and we were limited to walking many sections. The trail was a roughly marked track, but thankfully the daylight meant that we didn’t have to get the compass out! The views on the way up were spectacular. John and I eventually reached the summit and after a quick drink and bite to eat we were away on the tricky descent. Once at the base, the next section back to the yacht was the hardest part of the run. We had to run through National Park on very tough firetrail. By now fatigue had set in it was very difficult to lift our feet to avoid all the rocks and tree roots. We eventually reached the road which indicated we had 5km to go. We were reunited with Kevin, who by now, we swore was a gift from God! His encouragement and his refreshments were what we needed to get us home to our little cabin in our yacht! Finally we reached the port where we were greeted by our crew. Evidently, some of them had enjoyed a few ‘frothies’ in our absence!

Having jumped straight back onto the “Apollonius” after a 60km run, I realised that this was a race in every sense of the word. There was no time for questions or greetings, no pats on the back or a cold tinnie waiting for us, it was straight back on and sails were hoisted...unfortunately there wasn’t a breath of wind in the bay, which left us all very deflated! However, the lack of wind did at least make for a trip to the toilet/shower room bearable as I was able to shower without being thrown around and I was able to wash myself off to some degree!
Once back on deck I was enjoying a lovely afternoon laying back on deck when suddenly a massive ‘thump’ from below woke the crew up from their slumber. We had hit a sandbank! There were some very concerned and embarrassed looks as all the crew looked around trying to blame each other for the mishap! Fortunately the yacht didn’t park itself on the sandbank and we continued on our much more cautious way out of Lady Baron towards Freycinet. It was very slow going but at least it gave us an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful sunset.

The sail to Freycinet was memorable for two things-firstly, the most pleasant sleep I have had in a long time! The gentle rock of the boat and the weariness of a 60km run had me zonked out and next time I woke up it was 5am and the boys informed me that it had been slow going and it could be another 10 or so hours before we reached our destination! This did give me an opportunity to get to know my crew mates a little better and to also learn about the fine art of sailing. It was a lesson in jargon; a kite is not something you play with in the park, a wineglass is not something you drink from, a gybe is not something you say to a mate, a tack is not something you hang a picture up with, a peel is not what you cut off an apple and a birds nest is not something you find eggs in!

The other memorable thing was the abundance of sea life on this leg. I saw lots of albatrosses and the highlight of the leg, if not the whole trip was the pod of dolphins that accompanied us for about 15 minutes. I could swear they were racing the yacht, playing games and frolicking around. Such magnificent creatures...the long distance runners of the ocean!

Finally at 8pm we reached the Mt Freycinet area and were again met with the calmest of conditions. This was incredibly frustrating...being able to see the destination but basically crawling towards it! I did mention that I probably could have swum to the wharf quicker! Funnily, the yachts in the other categories were allowed to use oars to row, however, as we were in the fully crewed category, we had to rely on Mother Nature to get anywhere. Finally, we reached the dock to be met by a mass of locals, television crews and officials. The Tasmanians really do get into this race and I must say I did feel like quite a celebrity to be cheered on by a hundred or so people.

After the customary checking in of the compulsory equipment, we were on our way. With John, my Tasmanian running partner, in shorts and singlet, and me fully rugged up complete with long tights, thermal top and balaclava! I gave more than one or two locals a terrible fright! Osama Bin Laden is hiding in Tasmania! The temperature would have been about 8 degrees but the wind chill made it much cooler than that, but I soon realised that the excessive clothing was unnecessary as the arduous run up the Freycinet peninsula begun. This was no run, it more resembled a bush bash and being at night, my 2 dollar shop headlamp meant that I was being very careful on the rough trail not to do an ankle. My only regret of this run was that as it was at night, the spectacular views of Wineglass Bay and the surrounding areas were missed and there wasn’t an opportunity for the Kodak moments. But I did enjoy running at night. It is a very different experience to running daylight and should be done by every runner once in a while for something different.

The climb up Mt Freycinet was as hectic as anything I’ve ever done without ropes and karabiners. The track was not really defined and if it wasn’t for John’s handheld GPS unit and the fluorescent arrows nailed to trees every now and then I would not have got lost...remember I get lost running the Tuesday night runs around Burwood very frequently! The beach running was just plain cruel after 25km of running trails. Coming up to the conclusion of the run, John and I set ourselves a target of getting under 6 hours. With 5km to go we had about 27 minutes to run home to make it. We really put the pedal down and were pleased to reach the wharf just outside our goal in 6 hours and 1 minute.

Back on the yacht, I stripped off my sweaty, stinking gear and hung it up along the rails of the yacht and tucked into the pasta and meatballs that was permanently on the menu!
I did like dinner time, not only was it a time to restock the depleted energy levels, but the other fringe benefit was that the oven heated up the cabin, making the usual 5 degree temperatures bearable at a balmy 10 degrees! The Freycinet run was as hard a run as anything I have crazily attempted and all I was thinking of was sleep! It was 4 o’clock in the morning and my body clock was saying SLEEP...NOW!!! So I complied!

I rose feeling quite refreshed at 8 o’clock in the morning to experience the most wonderful morning. The yacht was skipping across the water, thanks to a favourable tail wind of about 8 knots, and we were making up good ground on our rivals. The spirits of the crew directly correlate with the weather conditions, and everyone had an optimistic tone in their voice about reaching Hobart in pretty smart time.

Unfortunately, as often was the case on this ocean faring adventure, the weather can turn as quickly as a prawn left out in the sun, and before we knew it we were once again left windless...although the lack of wind was more than compensated by the crew...if only we could harness and project the energy of 4 days worth of spaghetti and meatballs into the sails!

The skipper decided to take the underside (apologies to any sailors for my blatant disregard for the sailing vocabulary) of Maria Island. Hint to rookies...the island is pronounced Ma-rye-a, not the obvious way, but hey, we all know these Tasmanians are a strange breed! This meant we were very close to the coast line and had a lovely view of the jagged rocks and cliff faces. But as we were going at a speed that would have made Eric the Eel look like Ian Thorpe, we were never in any danger. This dawdle continued on for a couple of hours before the winds picked up slightly as we approached Tasman Island, which if you look on a map, is the point where we turn into the Derwent River which eventually leads to our destination –Constitution Dock in Hobart.

Dusk was approaching and as the night sky came closer, the most spectacular views of the coastline emerged. The ‘organ pipes’ of Cape Pillar are stark, rugged yet beautifully organised, and Tasman Island offers up some of the most sheer cliff faces in Australia. With the waves pounding against the cliffs, the symphony of sounds and the scenery result in a stimuli overload! This was the Southern Ocean, and our Skipper, Julian, was being particularly attentive to the wind and navigation as many a yacht has come undone around this point; through lack of experience and drifting into the rocks!

The water was very choppy around this section and the yacht was being thrown around in all sorts of angles. However, the wind slowly died down as we entered the forebodingly named ‘Storm Bay’ (the start of the Derwent River) and I decided to try and get a little sleep as at that point as we were looking like we could reach Hobart within 5 hours if the wind stayed true. However, we were soon to experience the most tedious, frustratingly boring part of the entire voyage!

As we sailed through Storm Bay, approaching the Derwent, the wind died, and I mean completely died. Due to the tide going out, at some points I thought we were actually going backwards! I woke up a couple of times to ask about our progress, and each time the ETA got further away, not closer!! What was going on? I went onto the deck and spent an hour or so just helping crew kill the time. I could see the frustration in their faces. Obviously the boats ahead weren’t stuck in this stationary state and their runners had already started on their last run leg up Mt Wellington. We were looking at an early morning run at best at this stage, so at least it wasn’t another night run again!

Strangely enough though, the crew all thought that the winds had picked up a bit but we weren’t travelling any faster over the water. When it became obvious that something was awry, the torches were ordered from below and a thorough check of the sides of the boat led to a discovery we least suspected...a couple of buoys and ropes were wound around our keel! We all laughed at our misfortune in between words that cannot be repeated here! Once we hauled the ropes up we discovered 2 crayfish pots (and they weigh a lot). It seems we had picked up some poor lobster fisherman’s pots and dragged them for God knows how far! At least we all had an excuse now to give for our slow progress!

Once we detached our crustacean hitchhiker friends, we immediately felt the difference and the yacht was moving once again in the right direction towards Hobart. We reach Constitution dock around 5am and John and I set off on our last run leg up Mt Wellington. The run leg was the shortest of the event (32km) but boy was it tough! Instead of following the road which meanders and winds around the mountain, we took the ‘short cup’ up the side! Steep and tough are two words that come to mind, a lot of it unrunnable and I was actually beginning to fade a bit as John power walked it up. To top it off, it was bitterly cold, with a wind which was straight from Antarctica slicing right through me, even in my thermals, skins and balaclava. John, once again, was quite comfortable in his shorts and t-shirt, but had to ‘rug up’ with gloves. Soft these Tasmanians!

Once up the top, we took a couple of happy snaps and started the decent down back to sea level. This was a welcomed way to finish the event, and John and I had time to reflect on our journey and we gave each other a couple of high fives. As we reached Constitution Dock, we saw the finish banner with our teammates waiting there for us (all showered and in clean clothes, I could hardly recognise them!) with a beer in their hand. No time is too early to have a beer if you are a sailor! John and I crossed the finish line and it was over-an epic journey that took the best part of 5 days.

The result in the end? We came 3rd in our category. But that didn’t matter. I had made many new friends, experienced life aboard a yacht, and had one of the best adventures of my life. This is one event I will recommend to anyone and if I ever get the opportunity again, I will be there quicker than you can say ‘hoist the fractional’!

PS The brekkie, shower and drinks (rum of course!) at the pub after the race to was pretty great too!!