I’ve always liked rogaining. And I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand. So when the World 24 hour Rogaine Championships turned out to be New Zealand this year, it seemed like a no brainer.
I arrived early in Christchurch on the Tuesday before the weekend race. Knowing that I was travelling from Cambodia, I wanted to get over the 6 hour time difference and definite jet lag that was bound to result from the flight. But little did I know that by the Thursday, despite my body having adjusted to the time zones, I’d pick up a terrible throat infection that was to mar my health for days.
Andrew flew in on Thursday evening, his journey only being a mere hop from Melbourne. Friday was spent buying food, batteries, and any other bits and bobs around Christchurch that were needed for the race.
We opted to take the early morning 6am bus up to the race start in Chevoit, a town north of Christchurch and a 90 minute drive away. As soon as we got to the bus stop, it was obvious that Andrew wasn’t ok. I knew already that he hadn’t slept on Wednesday night as he had to get up early to get the New Zealand flight. Then he hadn’t slept either on Thursday or Friday in the hotel we were staying in Christchurch.
And on Saturday night, we weren’t planning to sleep either but intended to race through the night. Andrew however decided to continue on to the race start and see how he felt.
As soon as we arrived, it was incredible to see the number of rogainers camped out in the school playing field. There were over 500 teams taking part in the race, an stark difference from the 50 odd teams you’d see turning up to the Irish equivalent rogaine.
Though the race didn’t officially start until midday, at 9am we were given our maps so that we could plan our proposed routes. There were around 90 controls dotted around the 1:40000 map, with controls having values of 10 to 100 points. They were all over the place. I hadn’t a clue where to start.
A first glance showed that there were very few obvious places to spend the night hours. And the night in New Zealand was long, 9 hours as opposed to the Irish rogaine’s 4. We eventually opted to spend the night on the flat north-west area that was dotted with fences, and to work our way down south towards the hills to be there at dawn. Quite a number of 100 pointers lay in the north-east section of the map, on a hilly area bound by a coastline. Course notes said that this was a slow going area, so we decided to spend our first day there when we had more energy to expend.
Once we had made that decision, we aimed to get all controls that were 60 points or more. Any lower scores we’d get only if they lay on the line between such high scores. And with those decisions made, we plotted our ‘flight plan’, handed it into the officials and waited for the race to be begin.
Lining up at the race start, I was amazed by the variety of people the rogaine had attracted: everything from young, lean and fit twenty year old boys with the latest gear, to old codgers with their 1950s compasses and untrendy high knee socks. And there were people from all over, from Australia, Estonia, Japan, UK, USA, Russia, Latvia, Sweden, and France. I even managed to briefly bump into Jacqui O’Hagan, the infamous Irish mountain runner / biker / adventure racer, who immigrated to New Zealand back in 2009.
The race start was amazing as hoards of us all ran the same direction to the first few controls. I’d never seen so many people streaming out of a rogaine and at such a fast rate. We decided to take our time and to try to get into the map as we went. Unfortunately, I never did manage to get my head around the map, and this had a definite negative impact on the outcome of our race.
We picked up 4 controls in quick succession, heading east then south from the start. Then we turned north and made our way to control 75 that lay at the bottom of some cliffs close to the coast line. We had been warned about crossing live fences in the race notes, and these fences totally littered our path. I eventually got stuck trying to get over one that had barbed wire and an electric wire sticking 30 cm out from the top of the fence. And at my mere 1.60 metre in height, the fence was too high for me to get over on my own. I had to wait until Andrew came back with his tall shoulder so that I lever myself over without electrocuting or disgorging my body parts.
It was during the journey to control 75 that I realised how difficult the map was to read. The whole area was strewn with rolling hills and very little else. So by misreading some contours, or simply by taking your mind off the map for a minute, I ended up wandering lost. It took us a while to find the control as it was seriously hidden away. This turned out to be normal for New Zealand, where planners often like the controls to be only visible from only 2-3 metres away.
The next 2 controls proved easy enough, but Andrew was feeling the effects of insomnia now. We decided to take the next one easy and wandered a bit and chatted. Approaching control 83, we found several other teams hunting around for the control. We too had difficulty as we climbed over a fence and into scrub to look for it, but never was it found. It was at this point we realised that the extensive network of fences that were marked on the map couldn’t be relied on at all. And what with the mist now down on the mountains, it made navigation close to impossible on the hills. (We figured out later that we had probably committed a parallel error and gone up a wrong ridge too early).
As the day wore on, I realised that I was out of water and was feeling the effects. So we plotted a route to pick up more, seeing that there were no running streams on the course. Picking up controls, we realised then that, not only were the fences on the map were unreliable, but also the marked tracks couldn’t be trusted either. This was after we ended scrambling up a step vertical bank when a path that was meant to be there ran out.
We reached the water point at 8pm and I slurped down water as fast as I could. Though the drink revived me, it looked at this point like nothing much would revive Andrew. He looked terrible, and as night was fast approaching, it was imperative that we be in good spirits to navigate in the dark.
I have been in team races and wanted terribly to stop. But it’s impossible to say that when it means letting the entire team down. I wanted to go on, but knew that Andrew probably just wanted to go home. So I told him I’d be happy to go on and happy to stop. And in the end, he made the call.
We decided to make our way back to the race centre via the Glenkens Road. So we followed a track that was meant to bring us straight off the hills to the tarmac. After a while, Andrew noted we were going north and not west according to the compass. It wasn’t until around an hour had passed that we realised the 4WD track we had been following wasn’t actually on the map. It meant, instead of taking an hour to get home, it took 3. And part of those 3 was a lift from the race organisers who were annoyed when they found us walking on State Highway 1 (which was explicitly prohibited).
At 11pm, I fell asleep in a classroom after having raided the hash house for food. We eventually stayed on until the prize giving, when we saw the best in the world rogainers and heard their phenomenal scores.
Even though we withdrew from the race, I’m still glad we took part. I really like the type and variety of people rogaines attract, the fact that fast and fit can compete comparably against the old and wise. I was amazed by the complexity of the map and realised that, having been away from orienteering now for over a year that my navigation skills have become distinctly rusty in this short time. Overall though, I think we made the right decision not to go through the night. The horror stories we heard in the morning of people being lost and bitterly cold out there meant that it was a part of the race best avoided.
But best of all, being there because of the rogaine meant that I could also go on holiday in New Zealand. I eventually went swimming with dolphins, trekked the Milford Track, kayaked in Milford Sound, ran the Kepler Track, heli-biked in the Remarkables, and went on a wine and cheese tour. So everything turned out well in the end.
Want to read more about Ireland’s own 24 hour rogaine? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears”.