After having two beautiful baby boys, breastfeeding for a year and working through as well as learning from my grief, I was excited and nervous to get back into expedition racing. Below is a little write up of my experience after a few weeks of reflection. Grab a cup of tea, sit back and enjoy:)
Expedition Racing is hard. It is hard on your body, it takes a ton of training, a ton of gear, and a well oiled team. Not to mention that they take an awful long time to complete. So then, “Why do you do it?” is a question I’ve been asked over and over again. My answer actually changes every couple of races: “I do it because of where it takes us, we see what few other humans get to see”, “We get to witness the changing light and beauty of multiple sunsets and sunrises for days on end”, “I get to work through challenges with in myself and my team”
These reasons and more are why expedition racing talks to my soul a bit more than other types of racing.
But during my most recent race – a 10 day New Zealand epic called GodZone, I developed a new answer as to why I love it.
Going into the race, I was super nervous. I had no idea how my body would perform or how I would be emotionally as a new mother. Especially given that it was going to be the longest period of time that I would be away from 13 month old Max. I knew he would be fine, because he always was. We are lucky to have an unbelievable amount of family and community support – people who not only watch Max, but also really care for him. Yet, leaving him in the early morning left my heart beside itself with sadness and guilt.
“We are going to be just fine, go have fun” Tammy – my sister in law said. “I know, and I will,” – I said, not sure of the fun part.
At the start line, the mama guilt and nerves were still running strong until my teammate Daniel tapped me on the shoulder and pointed up to the sky. There was a small rainbow right above us. At that moment, I released some much needed pressure and began to weep. I knew it was a sign for me to go spend some time with Spirit. “Hey there Spirit B, I’m coming” I whispered.
Moments later the gun went off, and our foursome, along with 390 other racers sprinted down main street Te Anau. Minutes later we’d inflated our packrafts and headed across the lake. I cried for that entire run, but as soon as we started paddling I was in it.
For the next couple of days we raced hard and fast in the most remote and rugged areas of that region. And due to some good pacing and phenomenal nav choices, we found ourselves battling it out with the top 5 teams. As a team we worked well together pushing one another, carrying each others packs and working towards a common goal of getting to the next checkpoint as fast as we possibly could. We were having fun, nailing the navigation and narrowly missing what could have been huge set backs. It was refreshing and comforting to once again feel my competitive drive kick back in. I felt strong, and couldn’t stop smiling for most of the race. “I suppose this is where I need to be” I thought. Jason and I were racing with his twin brother Andy, and another strong Kiwi named Adrian. It took some getting used to having new teammates, but they were both amazing and so funny which kept things positive whenever we started to feel the fatigue.
I thought about Max many times, but deep down I felt that he was getting every thing he needed. And while I missed him, I wasn’t ready to go home. I was having way to much fun racing and hanging out with Spirit B.
Spirit B kept me awake most nights out there. Often times, since I am not navigating, my mind is dull and sleepy at night. I am in my own bubble of light following my team and trying to keep my eye lids from getting heavy. But this time, Spirit B would come to me and we would have chats about why he left us, about how his brother Max was doing, about the stars, and how much he loves New Zealand, and all of the new places he’s seen.
One evening, it was past dark, we had been lost for a few hours on the bike and we all needed sleep badly. So I looked up and asked Spirit B to help us out. A few minutes later, a truck came out of nowhere and drove up really slow with two white dogs perched on it’s hood. In my delirious and delusional state, I could have sworn the dogs were angel wings floating on top of this guys car. The guy asked us if we needed help and pointed us in the right direction. With in an hour, we had found the check point and the best sleeping spot ever, a sheep farmer’s wool shed.
Spirit visited during the day too. He would come visit me in the swaying leaves and in the reflection of the water when we were paddling, He was always wiggling his tiny little butt and smiling at me.
As the days wore on, so did our bodies and minds. On the second to last leg, Andy’s feet were not doing so hot and we had not taken the amount of stops or rest that we had planned on. When we’d found out that we were in 3rd place, we got way to excited and tried to hold on to that spot – forfeiting feet and sleep for staying with the top pack. Now that choice was creeping up to us, but it was to late. He had full on trench foot, with skin peeling off of his feet making it nearly impossible to walk. It was the worst I’d ever seen, and I cannot imagine how he was able to go on. As a team we decided not to drop out, but to go through the night in order to get Andy down from the mountains and onto the final paddling stage as fast as possible.
However, that night, the sleep monsters attacked enforce. As we were climbing up the side of a waterfall, each of us took turns entering another “world”. For the most part, at least one of us was with it enough to lead the rest of our zombie team, but then both Adrian and Jason (our navigator and route finder) lost their last shreds of sanity. It was time to sleep.
For two hours, we lay on huge moss covered slanted boulders. I could not sleep a wink. I went down a very dark rabbit hole. Quite simply, I wanted to die. I can’t quite describe it in words, but I woke Jason up (he was not happy about this at all), to tell him repeatedly that I was done living. As the first hint of twilight, right before everyone woke I snapped out of it. I whispered some words to Spirit B – asking him to give all the strength that he had been giving me to his Uncle Andy instead.
At first light we woke and regrouped. The night before had seen us all almost lose our minds, we all agreed that we couldn’t do that again and that no matter what we were getting Andy down the mountain that day. “By tonight, we will be crossing that finish line” Adrian said.
We all looked at each other a little wary, it was still a long way, and Andy’s feet had worsened while we slept.
“If you get down this mountain today” I said to Andy, “I will play Dungeons and Dragons with you and the boys this Saturday”
“Forget it,” he countered. “You’ll suck at D&D. But if I get down this mountain, then you’ll LARP with the boys on Saturday!”
LARPing stands for Live Action Role Playing, and basically amounts to bashing each other with padded swords till someone, likely me, gets hurt.
“Deal” I said.
That day we came back together as a team, no longer really racing, but instead we all had a common goal of getting Andy down. We stopped when he needed breaks, Jason gave him tips on how to deal with pain that intense, and we kept him on a high dosage of ibuprofen and constant hydration. His speed and ability to move under that amount of pain was beyond impressive, and Adrian and Jason’s combined effort at finding us the best route down was life saving.
By 430 pm that day we were down the mountain and I don’t think I have ever seen Andy so happy to not have to walk any more step.
At the TA, we found out that there was a dark zone that night and that we had to be off the water by 9 pm. With some disappointment, we got into the boats and started to paddle towards home.
At 9 pm, just 15 km from the finish line, we found a beach and crawled out of our boats. We stayed up until 12 pm, sitting around a fire, drying out our clothes, eating all of our food and talking. As much as we all wanted to finish that night (especially Andy), we all agreed that it was actually an amazing way to end a race. Before the flood of families and friends, it was nice to be able to talk through the race with each other and have a quiet peaceful close to our time together. And most of all I relished one more night with Spirit on the breeze and starts bright in the sky. It was magical despite Andy’s misery.
The next morning at 630 am sharp, we were on the water ready to go. On the paddle home, I looked up and saw a faint rainbow in the sky, much like the one that I saw at the very beginning of the race. “Thank you Spirit B, I had a wonderful time with you”
By 845 am we were at the finish line. We had to carry Andy across the finish line, which created a very emotional finish. I broke down and started to weep when I saw Max. Tammy (who was holding Max) was also crying at the sight of her husband not being able to walk. We all held each other for a long time. When we were done, I took Max into my wet dirty arms. “It’s Mama” I said “Do you remember me?” He looked at me with his deep wells of eyes that seemed to be saying “silly Mama, of course I do!”
It was Tammy that later pointed out (with a hint of irony) that Max had learned to walk, while Andy had been reduced to crawling.
In the Media frenzy and questions that came in the minutes and hours after our strong 7th place finish, I was once again asked “Why”. I hesitated, not feeling like any of my old answers fit anymore since I became a mom. And then I looked into Max’s eyes and saw my own reflection along with something deeper.
“It helps me get to the center of my being, where patiently waiting for me is my sweet Spirit B.” I don’t expect anyone else to understand it. I don’t understand it. But for me it is true.