For a feature writing course assignment, Fritz van der Merwe decided to write an article on adventure racing from the perspective of a race organiser. This is his final article.
It’s cold and rainy at seven o’clock on the Saturday morning. Kayaks are being loaded into a truck that looks like a removal van. An obstacle course, several jumping castle type structures, is loaded on a trailer behind the red Toyota Hilux four-wheel drive single cab. On the doors are advertisements for the Kinetic adventure races. The back of the Hilux is piled to the roof of the canopy with boxes and bags – equipment for the course.
The other Hilux arrives. This one is a white double cab with the signature Kinetic Gear and adventure race collage on the sides. The four helpers proceed to fill it with boxes and bags as well. It appears that most of the boxes are filled with running shoes which will be on sale the next day, before, during and after the race.
“Marking the route is easy; it’s the logistics around the race that’s complicated” says Stephan. Indeed, as the preparations get underway, it is apparent that there are a lot to think about and any number of things can go wrong. One needs a special, composed disposition, tenacity and business acumen to be an adventure racing events organiser –a race director, in the adventure racing jargon.
Stephan Muller, a biokineticist and organiser of the adventure race on Sunday, is tall and lanky with sharply etched features, a glint in the eyes and a tinge of grey in the hair. Dressed in outdoor action clothes, he is also a veteran of adventure races like the Eco Challenge Borneo and the Australian XPD expedition race, an 800 kilometre race through the Australian High country.
He and his wife Heidi have raced in at least ten expedition races as partners. Heidi is slim and athletic looking. Her long, dark hair is captured in a pony tail under a baseball cap. Dressed in running shoes, jeans and an outdoor jacket, this former model (she still features in energy supplement commercials) and mother, is ready for action.
By ten o’clock everything is ready to roll. All but the truck with the boats it seems – it refuses to start. It looks like the battery is flat and the driver attempts to start it in reverse by rolling down the inclined road. Inclines unfortunately come to an end eventually and that is where the truck stays. Batteries get changed, but to no avail. So, we depart without the boats, leaving the truck driver and a mechanic to try and sort out the problem. Stephan’s earlier words come to mind.
The venue for the start of the race is the sports field of Roosevelt High School in Emmarentia, Johannesburg. The afternoon is spent in soaking, ice cold rain, laying out the obstacle course, marking off areas for the transition between cycling and running and assembling the flags for the control points.
Heidi quips; “If you think this is fun and games you should see the fun when the lorry is on its way in the dark, on some track in the rain, in the wilderness, to get the kayaks to the river before the racers get there, and a tyre bursts. That’s fun and games.”
When asked about the boats Stephan says; “I don’t know – maybe I should cancel the kayaking leg, but that would be disappointing for the competitors. I don’t know…I’ll make a plan.” He doesn’t look concerned.
For the uninitiated, adventure racing is a multi-disciplinary sport consisting mainly of mountain biking, trekking on foot and kayaking. Other disciplines may be thrown in on the course like mountaineering rope work, horse riding and swimming. Distances involved range between the 25 to 30 kilometre sprint races and the 500 to 800 kilometre expedition races. Times for the races range from 3 to 5 hours for the sprints, to 4 to 10 days for the expedition races.
Teams are made up of pairs, mixed pairs (male and female), threes, fours and mixed fours, the last category being the official format for the Adventure Racing World Series. Racing rules normally stipulate that team members must remain within sight and hearing distance of one another at all times and they must finish together.
The Adventure Racing World Series consists of eleven expedition races in eleven countries through the year, culminating in The Adventure Racing World Championships in one of the countries near the end of the year.
One of the World Series events takes place in South Africa, namely the Expedition Africa, a 500 kilometres expedition race, organised, coordinated and directed by Stephan and Heidi Muller and their team Kinetic Gear. They are the only remaining, successful organisers of a range of adventure racing events, from sprints to full length expedition races in South Africa.
During the years 1999 to 2005 South Africa saw a spate of adventure races organised from Limpopo to the Western and Northern Cape. Sadly, these became too expensive for the organisers, and after one event where the race organiser went bankrupt and the winning prize was never paid out, the events became few and far between.
That is, until 2009 when Stephan and Heidi stepped up and organised their first Kinetic sprint adventure race. Stephan recalls “I remember the first Kinetic adventure – we actually invited people to come and race for free to make up the field – it’s like we paid for them to race.”
From there they went on to organise longer races and as Stephan says, “every year we added a race.” Judging from their website, www.kineticgear.co.za, they added more than just a race per year. Their race repertoire now contains eight events through the year, from sprints through middle distance to the Expedition Africa, including a night trail running series.
Lisa de Speville a freelance sport journalist, writer and public relations and event media specialist, and self appointed “mom” of adventure racing, noted in an e-mail interview; “Heidi and Stephan are really making their events work by presenting a series of events. From the once-a-month trail runs that attract up to 700 competitors and the adventure sprint races that welcome 400 to the longer adventure races that may only have 40 – 150 entrants. They put a huge amount of effort and organisation into these events…”
Why do they do it? “It’s a business” comes the rather surprising answer from Stephan. “Also because I’ve done it for so long and hopefully to give the people what they want,” he adds. “If you don’t give them what they want, they won’t come…”
He initially thought of the idea to market his biokinetic practise and outdoor clothes shop, but it soon became a business in its own right. It gained momentum when he decided that races would be better attended if he supplied the boats, so he invested in 50 plastic sit-on-top kayaks and a lorry to carry them, with good results.
“They (the Mullers) have invested a lot of money in things like the kayaks and race boxes… equipment that reduces the barriers to racing and in making their events unsupported, where the teams do not need support crew(s)” says Lisa.
In reply to the accusation from some racers that the entry fees are becoming exorbitant – entry for the 2013 Expedition Africa is R20 000 per team – he switches to rapid fire talking: “It’s not expensive if you see what the racers get, a hotel room for four nights, 7 meals, they get maps, they get a race book, each one of them got an outdoor sport jacket… the jacket..” he points to the one he is wearing, “costs six hundred Rand.”
He continues to list expenses, photographer, paramedic, marshals, fuel… The list seems endless. “…especially if you have international teams, then you need interpreters as well…, you have to get them to the venue…, they want to visit that game park and you have to pay for them…”
That there is a real danger of making a loss is also clear; “This year’s Expedition used up nearly all the money I made last year, because only 14 teams entered…I was bargaining on 20. But you can’t cancel, because it’s an international event and the word gets around…you cancel races…that’s not good.”
He continues: “But it’s a business, and like any business it needs about five years to get off the ground. We’ve been going for three. If I don’t make it in five years I’ll cut it.”
Stephan is renowned for his good organisation and briefing at the start of his races. The racing reports after Expedition Africa all make mention of this. Merrell Adventure Addicts, for example, state that “Final race preparations, gear checks, race briefing, course marking and gear hand-in was (sic) made very simple by the top class organization of Stephan and Heidi.” Remarks in the same vein can be seen in all the other team reports and that it is true would become evident on Sunday.
By six thirty Sunday morning a feeble winter sun breaking through fleecy windswept clouds illuminates the devastation that was the obstacle course and start area. During the course of the night the wind had blown over the banners. The obstacle course was strewn all over the field and the tapes marking start, transition, finish and exhibition areas were flapping in the wind. Add weather to the logistics and it becomes really complicated.
Luckily the kayaks are there–they arrived over night in three trailers pulled by Kinetic’s two pick-up trucks. Apparently the lorry is still immobile.
Exhibitors, the sound system and some competitors arrive in quick succession. Stephan organises areas for the exhibitors and sound system between supervising the reconstruction of the course. Heidi briefs the marshals and handles the registration of teams. Each team receives a bag with their numbers on Kinetic bibs, their passport and punch, and a small present.
The passport lists all the control points for each leg of the race and against each number of a control point is a possibility of four letters, one of which will be written on the control point. The team then punches out that letter on the passport to prove that they visited the control point. To finish as an official team in the running for prizes, all the correct letters have to be punched out. In this race it would later turn out that one of the top ladies’ teams was disqualified because they did not punch a letter completely through.
By seven o’clock the competitors arrive in droves. Stephan is now handling the registrations while Heidi is out on the course briefing marshals and supervising the offloading of the boats. Everybody that passes gets roped in to help and everybody gladly helps as if they’re part of the team. Such is the ability of both Heidi and Stephan to involve other people.
Race briefing by Stephan is punctually at eight. Short and to the point as usual. There are some questions, but not many and at ten past eight the race starts with a wild dash around the field followed by a rush of bicycles out of the field gates where Metro traffic officials, briefed by Heidi, regulate the traffic.
The race is on.
Heidi checks all the control points in the school area where the next leg takes place while Stephan reroutes lanes on the sports field. There seems to be an invisible line of communication between the two. They just know what to do next with an ease and unflappability that is striking.
Soon the teams start trickling in for the transition. It becomes a steady flow which runs down to a dribble again at eleven o’clock. By twelve o’clock only two teams are still outstanding and they finish during the prize giving. By one o’clock there are only a few athletes hanging about. Most of the exhibitors are gone and the field regains its empty composure, except for the left over racing paraphernalia. Stephan walks around pulling up stakes, rolling up demarcation tape and putting barrier and instruction boards in a pile. Heidi, in the clubhouse, is packing away all the loose stuff.
In the words of Rudyard Kipling: “The tumult and the shouting dies / The Captains and the Kings Depart”, but the race director has to return everything to its proper place and plan for another day. The race was fun – hopefully it was profitable too.
Author: Fritz van der Merwe, firstname.lastname@example.org