Not many things in life can get people to voluntarily wake up at 4 in the morning. The Anaconda Adventure Race in Lorne is one of the few! Ben, myself and my family were up at 4:45, but Mick and Warren, driving from suburban Melbourne, were up even earlier. We were all converging on Lorne, a small beachside town on the Great Ocean Road, for the Anaconda Adventure Race. For us, it was a four-stage event with swimming, kayaking, trail running, and mountain biking. For the likes of the Banzai Adventurer, it was one very long solo experience!
I was nervous. Rarely have I been the captain for a team event, and this was the first time my three teammates were doing an adventure race. Warren, father of two, skilled bay kayaker, had never kayaked on the sea before. Mick, also father of two, had completed 19 swimming races in Lorne, but we had never met (he was replacing our planned swimmer who had been sick), and he wasn’t very keen on the 1.2 km run at the finish. Ben, of Team Inspiration, father of one with a second on the way, our mountain biker, was really a trail runner. There was a whole big wide scope for disaster, and I pictured it all: blood; drownings; car crashes; heart attacks during untrained-for running; terrible conversations with spouses. It felt like my responsibility; after all, I had gotten us into this.
On race morning, I was the third member of Team Inspiration to arrive. I registered, and our team number was promptly inked onto my upper arm by a surly man who had chosen the wrong line of work. Perhaps it was my six layers of clothing that put him off? There was something sinister about the process, and I quickly took my orange Anaconda water bottles and my young daughter (“Mom, that man wrote on you!”) away.
The team came together for introductions and race planning, and I found myself telling them the general plan of meeting by Ben’s bike in the transition area for the hand-over of the race bib and timing band. It was strange to be in the role of leader and team member; I am much more used to being an individual racer, or leading a BodyPump class.
Once organised, we made our way down to the swim start, walking along the coastal rocks that would be part of my trail run. We got Mick ready – the highlight of this was when he asked Ben to blow into his wetsuit sleeves (he called it “fluffing”) – I wish I’d had a camera handy to get a shot of Ben’s expression. Mick explained it helped the suit to fit better, but Ben didn’t look convinced. Back in the transition area, Warren awaited us, ready to dominate the kayak leg.
As usual, I was horrified by the sight of the swimmers voluntarily entering the cold water while the frigid wind roared (okay, so I feel the cold!). But they all seemed game, and we listened to the countdown from the pier. One poor soul had left his warm-up swim too long, and was still swimming to shore to join the back of the pack a minute or two after the start, as we all looked on. Poor guy! Then they were off, a long, thin line of churning water on the otherwise calm ocean beach. It was still hours before myself and Ben would be called into action.
Walking back along the path to race headquarters, we chatted about our upcoming 23 December training run in the Dandenongs, and plans to do the 43km Roller Coaster Run in March. Below, on the coastal rocks, we spotted my family watching the swimmers and paused for a great photo. What would you do to play on this coastline?
Meanwhile, Mick swam strongly to complete his 1.9 km swim. We got to the beach in front of the transition area, and waited anxiously for him to appear for the sprint down the beach. Mick is not a runner, and this stage was a bit of a shock to him. He faced it head on, and handed over to Warren to begin the 13 km kayak.
As I mentioned, Warren had never paddled on the ocean before. But he is one of those quiet athletes who don’t talk themselves up a lot, so I was pretty certain he’d be okay. It was after the race that he confessed to watching YouTube the night before, trying to figure out the technique to cross through the waves!
He was off, and I made my way to transition to await him. This was one of the more difficult stages of the race for me, not knowing when to expect him. Of course, there were the usual last-minute toilet stops, the application of sunscreen, the stowing of the mobile phone in the waterproof case. And of course, that phone rang several times as Mick and Ben and my family searched for one another, and I tried to connect them.
It was with dreamlike terror that I saw our race number heading towards me – it was Warren with a huge smile! It is hard to have the right amount of adrenalin handy when there is no starting pistol. We geared me up, and off I ran.
My first thought on the trail run was it was easier than I remembered. We crossed under the pier, over some boulders, then onto a moonscape of flat, sea-scrubbed rock. The rock was interspersed with holes filled with sea water, with upraised edges, with tiny crevasses to leap across. I was in my element, alert, focused, letting my body steer me forward fast. Perhaps, I thought, I was really much more agile than last year. Perhaps I’d mis-remembered those horrible coastal boulders, and it was only the boulders under the pier I’d been remembering.
Alas, the real boulders loomed up at me, and it was a 2km battle to keep my confidence up. No one else seemed to use their hands on the rocks for balance, so I tried not to. Then a small rock would move under my feet and I’d flail around and get scared and put my hands down and go too slowly again. I had to remind myself to run my own race, to let the faster rock-scramblers pass me in favor of less blood on my exposed body parts. I managed to stay upright, pretended to smile at the cameraman on the toughest section, and then I moved (all alone) across the river crossing under the Great Ocean Road.
And because I was all alone, all I could think of was snakes. The front-runners are of great value in scaring these off for the rest of us, but they were long gone, and any confident snake would be sunning itself happily on this quiet trail. And, unlike my usual trail races, the runners returning from their lap of this trail were not friendly. They didn’t smile or reply to my enthused calls of “well done” and “I’m impressed”; they kept their eyes forward and I felt invisible. It wasn’t until I was well within the middle-of-the-pack runners later in the race that idle chatter began again.
For maybe 3 kilometres I had the trail all to myself. I followed pink ribbons, sucked down a power gel, watched for snakes. And finally I saw an orange vest in the distance and knew I was on the right course still. Phew. Savage uphills, gentle downhills, a view of the lovely river on the left, followed by what, last year, was a slide down on our bottoms. This year a rope had been slung, and I witnessed varying degrees of confidence on both this steep descent and the later rope-slung ascent, and loved that there had been so many ropes as part of my Hong Kong racing. That part was fun – the greatest adventure of the whole thing. That plus the few fallen trees I was game enough to leap over at full speed – foolish but fun, taking myself to a place of confidence I rarely visit. I made sure to notice Phantom Falls this time, as I missed it last year because I was watching my feet too much!
Back down the trail, I made my way through the deepest section of the river crossing and was delighted to see the tide had gone out, so I could skip the hardest boulder section by running below it near the ocean. Joy of joys! Still, there were more boulders, more flat, sea-scrubbed rock. But this year I had trained up to 26 km in my longer runs, and I had plenty left at 14km. So much that I was dancing on those rocks, encouraging others, delighted in the doing of this. A sprint down the beach to the transition area, high-fives from my team and family, and then I met Ben to set him off on the mountain bike.
Phew! My clothes and shoes were soaked from the river crossing, and we guessed we had about an hour or so to get down to the beach transition area. I prefer not to remember the wait there, but I will say that rocks do hold heat, and as I huddled on them, among the other racers feeling a bit like a penguin, I rested my hands flat on those rocks to warm them. It was funny to see the varying reactions of mountain bikers to soft sand; some swore, throwing their bikes down. Others smiled and laughed in obvious delight. Ben came into view, walking his bike after a flat tire 2km earlier. He was in good spirits, and the four of us were ready for the final sprint down the beach.
Well, Ben and I were ready to sprint. Warren and Mick had made it clear that they were not runners, so we kind of did intervals down that beach, laughing, congratulating each other, planning for next year’s race. At the finish, my family was there to cheer us on and my son followed us across the finish line. We finished in 5:22, the 30th of 50 teams, which makes me pretty happy, as last year my team had a DNF (did not finish). There were twenty-eight women out there, and 321 men — no wonder it had felt a little male-dominated!
Here’s a shot of us just after the finish, with my support crew front and center (my husband took the photo). We finished, and we finished strong. No injuries, no blood or car crashes. Just big smiles, and a solid effort from every single one of us.
Will we race again? I was still driving home when the message from Warren arrived. “That was great! Let’s do it again!”
In the end, it is not about how fast we go. It is the doing of these incredible things, the memories, the anxious moments, the fears, and the overcoming of all we had to overcome to get here.
Yes, we will no doubt do it again. Will you join us?