Failure is inevitable

February 20


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LYN MCNAMEE LOOKS INTO THE REVENANT, A RACE SO HARD THERE ARE NO WINNERS, JUST FINISHERS.

It’s dawn in the Nevis Mountains. A piper stands silhouetted on a ridge, his melody drifting towards a host of tiny lights in the tussocks below. Each pinpoint is a contestant — twenty-four audacious adventurers seeking the fastest way up the rocky, scrub-filled slope.

These are the runners of The Revenant, an epic Ultra Adventure run that takes in the highs, and lows, of Welcome Rock Trails above Garston. The name comes from the word “revenant”, meaning an animated corpse who comes back from the dead to haunt the living. You get the gist.

This race is addictive because it’s so damned difficult to get to the end

Twenty minutes into the race, spectators fan out behind the piper. We huddle into our coats and peer into the semi-darkness. Who will pass us first? Suddenly, there they are, emerging over a ridge. We clap and cheer as, one by one, the runners pass us by. A grin, a wave, a wink, and they disappear. It’s safe to say we won’t see them back at the ski hut for fifteen long hours. What they are trying to do is my vision of the impossible.

These twenty-four women and men will race through blistering heat and pitch-black night. They’ll push through the beech forest, scramble along rivers, bruise their shins on boulders, stumble over spiky spaniards, all with the same single objective: to finish.

The Revenant is a boutique race with 40 coveted places available each year. Some are usually snapped up by international runners, but the 2021 overseas cohort was shut out due to the pandemic. Not to worry. If you’re accepted into The Revenant family, you’re eligible for all future runs. And they do keep coming back. This race is addictive because it’s so damned difficult to get to the end. Before this year, only three competitors, Shaun Collins, Angus Watson and Louis Schindler, had completed the course and earned the right to be called a “Revenant.”

Most Ultra Adventure races let you know where you’re going. Sure, the running’s hell, and not everyone finishes. Some, like the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra, are “last person standing” races. But all those events, at least, follow a marked course.

For Revenant race designers Scott Worthington and Tom O’Brien, however, there’s no point in taking the easy route when there’s a tricky alternative. You might say they’ve got a wicked sense of humour. The Revenant’s first rule is you get no outside help at all. There’s also no specified trail to follow. Mobiles are forbidden. So is GPS. Runners can’t even carry a watch. All they get is a compass and a topographical map with 14 red circles marking the checkpoints. The things they carry are the food they need and the weight of making their own decisions. When to eat, when to sleep, which way to turn, when to stop. The further they run, the harder it gets.

Runners have to visit the checkpoints in numerical order. On the map, the course looks like a comfortable loop around the hills. It’s not. To hit them requires criss- crossing the mountain. Across the tops, down, up and across again. Each lap is 50 kilometres long (if you take the most direct route), and to finish, you must complete all of them four times, twice clockwise and twice the other way round.

THE TRICK IS TO REMEMBER TO EAT. JEAN FUELS UP.

Is it even possible to cover 200-odd kilometres and 16,000 metres of climbing in the sixty allotted hours? The Revenant’s motto encapsulates this challenge: “When failure is inevitable, how far will you go?”

In 2021, I met four athletes who set out to answer this question, Jean Beaumont, Katie Wright, Sue Hardy and Helen Waterworth. And I asked them mine. “Who would run such a race? And why?”

Helen Waterworth is a firefighter from Whangarei who thrives on challenge. But when she applied for her first crack at The Revenant, she had no idea what she was taking on. “I came across The Revenant

on the running sites. Three-day adventure race — that’s all it said. And I thought, ‘That sounds amazing.’ But I thought you could sleep between laps. So I signed up.”

In reality, Helen had just reached her first hurdle, the race interview. You don’t just enter The Revenant. You apply, submit your resumé, and hope.

“I got a phone call from Scotty. We had a 45-minute conversation and then he said, ‘You can have the last spot.’ After that, I thought I’d better look the race up, and I started laughing. I rang my Dad and said, ‘Dad, you won’t believe what I’m doing.’”

Helen knows how to be tough. Brought up on a farm in the back blocks of Hawkes Bay, she’s not into city streets. Instead, she left school to go farming, fruit picking and travelling, and ended up working as a scuba instructor in Thailand.

“That was like the wild, wild west. I was working illegally, so I had to do border runs. Then there was a military coup, so I did my last season and came back to New Zealand.”

She applied for the Fire Service, and the training tested her stamina to the limit. Since then, Helen’s conquered marathons, 100-kilometres races and the Sky Tower Challenge more than once. But until 2021, she’d never dreamt of running a race like The Revenant.

Sue Hardy and Katie Wright did know what they were signing up for. 2021 was their second crack. “Last year I was petrified,”

Katie says. Having won the Riverhead Ultra in 2019, this English doctor is no stranger to long distance running. But, in 2020, the thought of navigating around mountains, rivers and gullies in the dark tied her stomach in knots. “I started that race terrified. I had a compass, but I’d been too nervous to practise with it.” Still, she managed a lap-and-a-bit, and in 2021, she came back for more.

“This year, I actually practised with my kit. Obviously, there’s still a lot to learn but I went out not scared to be on my own.”

The Revenant is an unsupported race. That means the families waiting at home base and the volunteers out on the course cannot offer even a smidgeon of aid. You can’t remind racers to eat or drink. You can’t give them directions or tips. If they drop a pole or forget their map, bite your tongue! Something as simple as telling a competitor the time can get them disqualified.

Because of this, it’s up to the runners to support one another. And they do it in spades, because contestants aren’t competing against each other in The Revenant. There’s no first, second and third. There are no prizes. You either finish, or you “tap the Welcome Rock whiskey bottle” and concede. Everyone is in it to see how far they can go.

It gives the event a unique spirit of collaboration. In fact, Scott and Tom designed it so that no one could finish without getting help from other runners. A navigation tip, teaming up for a while, a comforting word in the dark — it all adds up to boost morale and energy when it’s needed most. Groups form and break apart as runners find their rhythms.

“I think you can share the load, and you can egg each other on,” says Katie, who ran the second leg with Jean this year. “You’ll have bad patches at different times, so you can push through things a bit more. It helps.”

Sue, a business owner from Auckland, agrees that she was unprepared for what The Revenant throws at you. She has completed the 60-kilometre Kepler Challenge, the Tarawera Ultramarathon, and the Northburn 100, but in 2020 she didn’t understand what The Revenant had in store.

“I was going to my chiropractor, Terry, at the time, and he said, ‘I can’t believe no-one finished that race. How hard can it be?’ So, we entered.”

Turns out, it can be very hard. “I didn’t know where I was going, and things seemed to take longer and be bigger than they actually are.” This is why the race has defeated so many, from Navy Seals to some of the fittest athletes on the planet, including ultra-runners well- used to running 200 kilometres.

Porirua’s Jean Beaumont was one of The Revenant’s inaugural competitors. She’s covered tremendous distances and endured some of the world’s most demanding events, including Washington State’s Bigfoot 200 [mile] Endurance Run over the Mount St Helens volcano and Patagonia’s Ultra Fiord race, which she won in 2018.

It’s the navigating with no sleep that gets to Jean. “It sucks the energy out because… you have to concentrate, instead of just plodding behind someone else.” You have to check your map and your compass, decide on a route, and remember to plan for the next loop when the terrain will seem different because you’re going the other way.

As Jean explains, “I can do two nights up, but not if I’m navigating. If it was like one of those races where you’re just following the markers… .” But then it wouldn’t be The Revenant.

Scott Worthington tells me you must get everything “spot on” to run The Revenant’s four laps in under 60 hours. Fitness, food, hydration and navigation are huge, but there’s more.

“It takes perseverance, tenacity and sleep. It’s not a speed race. Runners tend to leave sleeping too late. It’s like not drinking enough, you can’t recover.”

“It was in my race plan to sleep,” admits Katie. But, she and Jean just kept going instead, and that was their undoing. Checkpoint
13 is the northernmost point on the course. After 27 hours, with three hours until cut-off time on their second lap, Jean and Katie had clambered along the Nokomai River and plodded over a bog to grab their checkpoint proofs from the small orange box. They were looking good as they climbed through the tussock and headed for Checkpoint 14, just a couple of gullies away.

They’d been there before, but that was one-and-a-half days ago. Exhausted and sleep-deprived, Katie and Jean ran down the wrong ridge and ended up in a different gully. They weren’t far from Checkpoint 14 as the crow flies, but it could have been a hundred miles away, because time was no longer on their side. They never did find that last orange box.

Their mistake was similar to one Wānaka’s Ian Evans made in 2020. That year, time lost searching for Checkpoint 14 in the dark brought him in a mere fourteen minutes late on his third lap. Tears flowed all round when Scott and Tom had to say, “Ian, you can’t continue.” It was a bitter blow, especially as Ian had had to withdraw after losing his vital checkpoint proofs in the fog-ridden race of 2019.

In 2021, Ian was determined not to concede. The others dropped around him, one by one. Helen’s knees blew on her second lap — still, a tremendous effort for a “first timer”. Sue was delighted when she finished one lap, but “I knew about two checkpoints back I wasn’t going to carry on. It would turn my pleasure in running into heartache.” By the time 36 hours had passed, all but one runner had tapped the whisky bottle.

Ian Evans ran on through the second night and into the afternoon. Fifty-nine hours after that lone piper sent his melody into the mountains, we lined the Nevis Road. The tapped-out runners bit their fingernails and compared notes on the best route up from the final checkpoint. Photographers peered through their long lenses while the rest of us longed for binoculars.

Suddenly, there he was. A speck, moving down the distant gully. He disappeared again, but now we knew Ian was on his way to Checkpoint 14. Minutes dragged by, then, at last, Ian plodded into view. The silent slopes erupted with cheers and whistles. He raised his arms, ran the final metres to pass the Garston Ski Hut, then collapsed into his partner’s arms.

The victory ceremony was short and sweet. It didn’t seem fair to keep Ian on his feet for long. We sweated while Scott and Tom poured over Ian’s checkpoint proofs, for even then, one missing page could disqualify him. Finally, only one formality remained

— Ian raised his shot glass and downed the whiskey, a Revenant at last.

WORDS: LYN MCNAMEE PHOTOS: SEAN BEALE


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