Race Report – Pantanal World Champs

Posted on 2015-11-26
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GODZone Adventure Team – 2015 World Championships Race Report:

The 2015 World Championships location was announced late in 2014 and we had been expecting a hard race ever since. It turned out to be the most brutal race we have ever done which is a view I think most the athletes would agree with. However, alongside the pain, we got to experience a truly magical place. Racing in Brazil’s Pantanal (the world’s largest tropical wetland area) was like racing in a zoo or safari park. I have never been surrounded by so many incredible animals and birds. We got really up close and personal with alligators and by the end of the week we were walking and swimming just a few feet away from them.

The World Championships is always the most stressful race of the year and the one that requires the most planning and training. Racing in the Pantanal had the added complications of extreme heat, numerous dangerous animals to be aware of and also very difficult navigation on 1:100,000 scale maps with little detail. There was also a new discipline in pack rafting which we had to master.

We arrived in the lovely town of Corumba, Brazil early and spent a few days trying to get used to the 38 degree heat and super high humidity as well as testing our new kit and finally packing it into different boxes which we would receive later in the race. The start line of the race was a 12-hour boat journey north along the Rio Paraguay and we were all transported on Brazilian Navy vessels, which was fun and a unique experience. We arrived at the start line and spent the morning at a community school project, which was great, and we were well fed and enjoyed interacting with the local kids.

The race started at 1.00pm on the river with an upstream paddle of 50KM, it was hot at the start but only 30 minutes in everyone was hurting and the heat was just insane, we had to constantly splash each other with water just to try and keep cool so it was slow progress and with paddling not being one of our strengths we had to work a little harder but we made no navigation errors and came in a decent place. The kayak was followed by a short trek section, which we did well on and as a strong breeze picked up in the evening we made good time and it finally felt like we were racing. We got down to the start of the first pack raft and again made good progress – one checkpoint was missing so 4 teams bunched together to look for it and after some time we all decided to leave it. We then had a tough paddle up a long lake into a headwind which was hard going in the packrafts. We finally made it to the landing area and then had a very tough bushwhack up a steep hill in the heat of the day with no breeze. By the top we had moved into second place but the heat was taking its toll. We had a good run off the top of the ridge and started the 4th stage in a strong 2nd position.

The long trek started well for us but there was a large climb and even though at night, the heat was still making it hard. We moved well on top with a good breeze but a few hours after sunrise the intense heat had returned and it got worse throughout the afternoon until we had to stop and find shade and sit in the wind to cool down for several hours. We had been drinking well and even had jumped into some pools of water to cool right off but we were quickly hot again. Teams started to come past us but there was really nothing we could do but as soon as the sun went down we moved on and again made good time and ended up finishing the stage in 5th place. We then had a good paddle downstream with a tailwind, which was strong enough to use the sails on. We took it in turns to have a sleep and by tying the 2 boats together allowed just 3 of us to paddle.

At the end of the paddle we opted for a 4 hour sleep as we knew the toughest 2 stages were up next and we wanted to be fully rested – unfortunately due to the bugs and heat we did not sleep too well but we did rest and started the trek stage strong and made really good time over taking a number of teams. It was a great stage and we got to see stingrays, loads of alligators and it was a beautiful area to trek through.

We reached TA6 feeling good and had a quick transition to the packrafts to make the most of the daylight. This stage was always going to be the crux of the race and we started well following the route but we got to an area where we lost the track and although we spent several hours looking for it at night decided it was too high risk just to go for it and so we headed back to the TA to rest up and try again at first light (we had wasted 8 hours looking). In the morning we were told that the 5 teams on the stage were all taking a long time and Seagate, the leading team with the best navigator were 30 hours in and still not near the finish. The race director had given time estimate of between 13 and 22 hours and therefore we had packed 24 hours of food (to be safe). In the end it took the quickest team 39 hours to complete and the slowest 55 hours. It was Thursday morning and the race finished on Saturday at 1.00pm so we were running out of time. There were 4 more stages after the pack rafting, a 27km trek, 85km kayaking and 251 km of mountain biking. It was simple maths that the course was simply far too long. We explained the situation to the other teams and although we all had the desire to continue and wanted to race there was also the harsh reality that there was simply not enough time and it was not sensible to start a stage that might take 48 hours with 24 hours of food. It had also been crystal clear in the rules that if we used the yellow brick emergency device we would be automatically disqualified from the race so the risk of going into the swamp was not really worth it. With the luxury of hindsight the teams ranked 6-9 should have gone for it and we probably would have made it but finished the race very late. However we made the decision on the facts we had at the time it was the right call at the time.

Its a shame the organisation had not planned this stage better as it really ended the race for most at this point and for at least 2 of the teams that did make it through the swamp they hated every minute. The timings were way off and for the short course team’s that had all been directed that way it could have spelt disaster with helicopter rescues the only way out. The race director eventually cut the next 2 stages and so all the teams were transported by light aircraft (3 people at a time) to TA 8 to start the mountain bike stages, The final Kayak stage was also cut.

The final bike was OK but there was a lot of very soft sand, which meant you were on and off you bike a lot but at least it felt we were moving somewhere. Water was a little sparse and we ended up drinking out of a few muddy ponds, which was not ideal, but it didn’t seem to effect us. After about 36 hours of riding and numerous cans of Red Bull we made it to the start of the final paddle stage, a short 5 KM in a native canoe. We paddled hard against the current and had to stop to empty the water out once as there were a number of holes! We reached the finished line around 7.00am (6 days 18 hours after we started). It was a great feeling to finish and battle through a tough course.

The team had been awesome with Gui doing an amazing job navigating and picking some great routes. Sarah was a rock and faired very well in the heat and really looked after the boys. Warren had probably suffered the worst with the heat and had spent most the race feeling unwell and it needed all his strength and experience to make it through to the end.

We leave with moral concerns surrounding the use of Intravenous Fluids (IV’s) and GPS Trackers by certain teams during the race. Without going into too much detail, their use clearly had an impact on performance and their finishing positions and have left many other teams dispirited and baffled about how this could have been permitted in a race of this stature. To us it felt like a threshold had been passed in the spirit of fair play and this was not something that sits well with something as wholesome as expedition racing. It was disappointing to see the disconnect between Series Organisers and Race Organisers who clearly had different opinions and agendas when it came to the application of rules – something that needs to be cleared up quickly. Leaving the moral issues aside, perhaps the biggest issue created by the random application of rules was the fact that nobody inside the top 10 other than Seagate had any idea of their finishing position when they crossed the line. It’s hard to celebrate when you’re not sure whether you are 4th or 8th.

We did enjoy most of the race and we all certainly loved the wildlife and scenery of the Pantanal. There were many teams around the world that did not make the race this year due to their reservations about the location and organisation (only 32 teams made the start line compared to around 50 in 2014 and 60 in 2013). The race was so close to being really good but the time estimates and nature of the pack rafting stage really had a poor effect on the race. The race organisers were ambitious and certainly showcased a beautiful part of the planet but they just made it too long and too hard and if you ask any racers its really not what we want. I have great faith in the sport and I’m sure the World Championships in Australia next year will be amazing. Thank you to the race organisers for putting on a good race in an amazing place and hopefully some valuable lessons in course design and time estimates will be learnt for the next race they put on.

A huge well done to all the other teams that took part and especially to Seagate who have set a very high standard in the sport for the past 5 years and it will be sad to see Nathan Faavae move away from racing but hopefully he will still be involved in the sport. Also well done to Team Haglof’s who have had some really bad luck in the last two world championships but have come back strong with a 2nd position and were also the fastest team on the dreaded packraft stage.

Thanks to all our family and friends for supporting us again and making sacrifices to allow us to train and disappear to race. Also to our sponsors whose great kit all helped make racing just a little bit easier. The Whyte Bikes performed well and the Alpkit bike luggage worked really well allowing us not to carry backpacks on the bikes keeping us a lot cooler. The exposure lights were amazing and really help with our navigation at night. In the intense heat the forgoodness shakes liquid diet worked brilliantly and we were all drinking one every 3 – 4 hours. Clif Bars and Bloks along with the Absolute Wilderness meals helped kept us well fuelled. Time for a well earned rest now and then we will pick up the racing again in February in Chilean Patagonia at the Patagonia Expedition Race.

Nick Gracie