XPD Oz: On your marks…

With the Adventure Racing World Championships just a month away from kicking off in Tasmania, the final line up of teams has been decided… now the serious stuff begins.

Last year’s XPD offered competitors the chance to tangle with stinging trees, get leaches stuck to their eyeballs and collide with crocodiles in the middle of the night, all as they were negotiating their way through a 700km wilderness-based course in kayaks, on bikes, down ropes and by foot. This year the event – Australia’s last true expedition-style adventure race – is doubling as the AR World Championships, and rumour has it that race director Craig Bycroft is taking this rather seriously…

The 2011 Adventure Racing World Championship is scheduled to take place in Tasmania from 31 October to 11 November. Unsupported teams of four athletes will race non-stop through the wilderness for between five and tens days, competing for a share of $75,000 in prize money, and the honour of saying they got to the finish line.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this, public entries into the XPD sold out months ago, with many local teams champing at the bit to pit their wits, stamina and multi-sporting prowess against the world’s best adventure racers.

And it isn’t just locals wanting a slice of the action – this is a genuine world championships and 23 different countries will be represented by teams in Tasmania, setting a new record for ARWC and underlining just how colourful and competitive this race is promising to be.

The stampede for a place on the starting line left a number of elite teams in a gut-wrenchingly nervous situation, however. The easy route into the World Champs slammed shut when open entries sold out, meaning anyone left on the other side would have to fight for their right to party with the adventurous portion of the planet’s population’s premier league. Not only that, but the events where they’d have to prove themselves worthy were among the toughest multi-day adventure races on earth – the AR World Series qualifiers.

“During our recent trip it became very apparent just how many top teams have been going to ARWS qualifiers specifically to win a spot at the World Championships,” observed Craig Bycroft after returning from a tour of some of the World Series events.

“We have the winner of every qualifying race attending, plus the defending World Champions. It’s the first time that has ever happened – it is going to be an incredibly competitive race down in Tasmania.”

The final three teams to secure their spots were Team WildernessTraverse.com (who won the Raid the North Extreme in BC, Canada at the end of July), Team Quechua.com (winners of the Raid in France, which took place 28 August–1 September) and Team Tecnu Extreme, who nailed the very last place with a stunning September 11th victory in the Gold Rush Mother lode in central California.

In winning their qualifying events, however, these teams’ trials and tribulations have only just begun. Between the dastardly designs of Craig Bycroft and the wildness of the west of Tasmania, whole new levels of competitive challenges are about to be unleashed upon them – and they know it.

“We felt we had a pretty soft run in the Canada race,” admits Wilderness Traverse’s New Zealander Gordon Blythen. The XPD will have much harder competition, so we’ll just give it our best shot and see how we go.”

Exactly what will be thrown at them is totally unknown, but with the starting gun already loaded, the world’s finest adventure athletes are now poised to take anything on.

“The calibre of teams that we have competing in the championships this year is so high that it really is impossible to predict who will be in the top 10, let along who will be on the podium,” admits Bycroft.

“It will definitely suit the physically and mentally tough teams, and like all XPDs, this will be a true expedition-style race through genuine wilderness conditions. That might cause difficulties for some European teams, whose races are traditionally over more predictable terrain but at much higher intensities. In that sense the course may suit the South American and Canadian teams, as well as teams from Australian and New Zealand, particularly if they’ve raced XPD before – and know how rough and unpredictable we like to make things. I reckon some of the less high-profile locals are going to shock a few top teams.”

For the 2011 ARWC, the qualifying events were: the 2010 ARWC in Spain, the 2010 XPD Expedition Race in Cairns, the 2010 Adidas TERREX Adventure Race in Britain, the Huairasinchi AR in Ecuador (March 2011), Ecomotion Brazil, the APEX Race Switzerland (May 2011) Costa Rica Adventure Race (May 2011), the Raid The North Extreme (Canada in July 2011), the Raid In France (August 2011) and the Gold Rush Mother lode in the US.

The team list is literally a who’s who of international adventure racing, from current and previous World Champions like Buff Thermocool (2010) and adidas Terrex (2009) through to top contenders such as Thule Adventure Team, Merrell Adventure Addicts and Australia’s own Team Blackheart, winners of the 2010 XPD.

The wild credentials of the race setting are as rock solid as the competitor list lining up to take it on. While areas like Freycinet and the Cradle Mountain region are tourist attractions and have been utilised by many adventure events, the rugged West Coast of the Apple Isle is an altogether wilder and more remote location, and Bycroft has cautioned that teams will need their navigation skills to be stiletto sharp.

Steve Cooper, from the adventure racing website Sleepmonsters, says this element of the race is crucial, and that it will play onto the hands of a number of teams.

“I think the Southern Hemisphere teams are going to be right up there – particularly Merrell from South Africa. Mind you, if the weather turns bad in Tassie it will be hard to go past Adidas [from the UK]. And, of course, the defending champions, Buff, can never be underestimated. Either way, the race will be won as much in mental realm as it will in the physical one. Some of the internationals might be struggling after travelling so far too. The local team Blackheart are going to be tough to beat,” says Steve. “Their nav skills are as good, if not better, than any of the top international teams.”

The Australian teams would be well advised not to put too much faith in the possibility that their competitors will be jetlagged though. At least one outfit from overseas, Team Thule, arrived in Australia to start training in local conditions a few weeks ago, and such dedication to proper preparation will serve them well when the battle for world domination heats up.

For the lucky last qualifiers, such precise planning was never really an option, but that hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm.

“We are very pleased to go to Tasmania after our victory in France,” enthused Quechua’s Rudy Gouy, after the realisation that he was going to the World Champs had sunk in. “It [the Raid in France] was a hard but very beautiful race. Now we will recuperate and prepare for some smashing travel in Australia… We have seen the program for the XPD, and we wait for the start impatiently. We know a lot of great teams will come and it’s a new country to discover for all of us but we will give the best of ourselves to have no regrets.”

But before they get to give their all in the race, they have to get themselves and their gear sorted, and quickly. “The preparation of material is not simple,” concedes Rudy. “Trunks, bike bags, flights… we are looking for an accommodation near the HQ but I have sent many mails without answer. I will try again next week. We are also looking for someone who speaks English and French to help us during the briefing…”

Team Tecnu Extreme secured their place even later in the piece, and for one of them in particular even Quechua’s quandaries seem a trifle. Brian Schmitz was so taken by surprise by their last-gasp qualification that he’d scheduled his wedding just before the Worlds, and will have to miss the race as a result.

The rest of Team Tecnu Extreme don’t seem too overawed by the task ahead though. “I know the competition on the international level is much higher than it is here in the USA, but I think this team has what it takes to compete,” claims Kyle Peter.

Ryan VanGorder will be taking Brian’s place in the team for the championships in Tasmania. “He will add some more international AR experience, has done an XPD before, is a human kayak, and will be upping our horsepower on the bike.”

And wherever they end up placing, finding themselves suddenly heading Downunder makes for a huge adventure by itself. “I have never been to Australia before,” says Kyle. “I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m not quite sure what to expect in Tasmania in terms of vegetation, terrain, animals…”

Veteran Australian adventure racer and ultra runner Damon Goerke from Team Blackheart would probably advise Kyle to expect anything but a cuddly welcome from the local flora and fauna. Damon was part of the team that won the 2010 iteration of the XPD in Cairns, which took teams along another course set by Craig Bycroft, and he still has the scars to prove it.

“I’ll never forget the pain of those stinging trees,” he says. “But that river section [down the remote Walsh River] was the best paddling leg of any adventure race I’ve ever done. At night you could tell where the fast line down the rapids was by the gleam from the crocodiles’ eyes – they’d be sitting there waiting for fish, but they ended up getting us instead.”

What exactly Bycroft has in store for competitors this year will stay under wraps for just a few more weeks, but visiting international racers shouldn’t be too alarmed. There are no stinging trees and crocodiles down in the wilds of Tasmania – the cold climate and the giant sharks saw them off eons ago…

For more, see www.arwc2011.com and www.xpd.com.au – where armchair adventures will be able to follow all the action as it happens through live tracker and regularly updated and team blogs direct from the field.

Author: Patrick Kinsella

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