geoquest 2019
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Finding Success in Failure

by Natalie Ganderton

GeoQuest 2019, the highs and lows of one of Australias toughest adventure races.

I think it’s fair to say you know that you’re writing a race report for the GeoQuest (“Australia’s Premier Adventure Race”) when you have browser tabs open searching “synonyms for desperation” and “type 2 fun”.

When Bec asked if I wanted to do the GeoQuest 24 hour adventure race with her and another couple of keen beans that she’d found, it didn’t take me long to agree. It’s always been something I had thought about doing, so this opportunity was too good to pass up.

Only Katherine had done a 24-hour race before; Allie, Bec & I had done handfuls of shorter races together previously. The four of us decided to do a 12 hour rogaine in the preceding weeks, which turned out to be great preparation; even so, nothing can quite prepare you for a 24 hour adventure race! 

As we arrived in beautiful Yamba the day before the race, the wind gods were meddling with the 20 km sea kayak planned for Leg 1. Initially, the word went out that GeoQuest Half teams like us were going to be able to choose whether to do the sea kayak, or opt to run the leg along the coast. Before the decision could tear our team in half, the updated decision came that the sea kayak was no longer an option for the Half course. Colour two of us a bit disappointed, and the other two massively relieved!

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Above: Another big turnout, the competition was high.
Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

geoquest 2019

Above: The map of pain!

So we set off gamely at 8 am from the beach in the grey morning light on the  20 km coastal trek to the first bike transition. The stunning scenery made us glad to be out there, although during the long, checkpointless traverse we lost a few chunks of time to navigational errors and second-guessing ourselves. But by the time we reached TA1 (the first Transition Area) though, we’d settled into our flow and headed out strongly on the bikes.

Leg 2 was sandy & mostly flat, and we skipped along pretty happily. This 24 km bike leg took us through more beautiful terrain, and we arrived at TA2 with our sights set determinedly on our second 20 km coastal trek of the day.

Leg 3 went well for us and we were pleased to have a few checkpoints along the way to keep us focussed. We were really disciplined with our route choice & navigation to these checkpoints, and spiked all three, which gave us great confidence as we hurtled towards sunset.

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Above: Heading out, and feeling strong on our bikes.
Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

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Above: Another 20kms of coastal running.
Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

At TA3, we gratefully lapped up some warm food & encouragement from our wonderful support crew of husbands & children, which was a welcome respite after a long day on our feet before we set off on the kayaks into the evening. Having never done night kayak navigation myself, I found it pretty challenging sat in the back of a boat plugging away never feeling like I knew where were at all!

“rain started to fall towards the end of the 14 km paddle, and we struggled through the awful boat portage into the transition, freezing & ravenous as the heavens opened.”

Luckily, the other girls had some experience of this and guided us confidently through the mangroves to our checkpoint & finally into the next transition. The long-forecast rain started to fall towards the end of the 14 km paddle, and we struggled (REALLY struggled) through the awful boat portage into the transition, freezing & ravenous as the heavens opened.

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Above: Heading into the unknown for a night Kayak.
Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

TA4 was a big one, as we were setting off from here into the night with 3 significant legs (3, 4 and 5) in the Candole State Forest before we would see our crew again the next day, and the unknown was looming large over us all. Nevertheless, after another round of warm food, warm words & fresh gear from our crew, we set off on the bikes into the forest ready to bring it.

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Above: Loaded up with food and hot drinks. The magic of our support crew made a huge difference to our mental and physical state.
Photo: ©Ian Ganderton

Leg 5 was a 29 km bike largely along steep clay fireroads turned into slick rivers by the rain. After nailing the first checkpoint, disaster struck when we arrived at what we thought should be the location of CP7, only to find dozens of other teams fruitlessly scouring the area. It turns out that tracks on NSW maps are not necessarily likely to be accurately marked – something I wish we’d known in advance! To make matters worse, I thought I had seen the control flag glowing in my headlamp in the distance, but I lost sight for a minute as a gathered the team & headed in the general direction – only to never see it again. Gone! Or was it never even there? We’ll never know.

“as we slogged on up towards the heavens through the wee small hours, I deeply questioned my sanity.”

After entirely too long, we reluctantly agreed to press on without the checkpoint, and as we slogged on up towards the heavens through the wee small hours, I deeply questioned my sanity. As we were out a couple of hours longer than we had expected on this punishing leg, Kath’s head lamp ran out of juice – luckily mine was going strong and we worked together, me riding close behind her to light the way for both of us, which got us through. We nailed the remaining two checkpoints on Leg 5, and were jubilant as we popped out at (unmanned) TA5, what must have been the highest point for miles around (read: MONSTER climb, to finish both legs 5 AND 6).

geoquest 2019Deep, clay rutted fire roads made the going very tough. Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest
geoquest 2019A MONSTER climb out of leg 5 and 6. Photo: ©Mark Blackwell
geoquest 2019Gloop, anyone? Photo: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

Heading out on foot for the 10 km rogaine in the last hour of darkness before daybreak, I can say now that we were not as cautious as we could have been with our route choice.

There were 8 checkpoints that we had to choose 4 from in any order (as per rogaine format); CP A was the closest to the transition (but one of the furthest from a track), and so we set off into the fighty undergrowth down what we hoped was the right spur. It was during this time that our friends & family dot-watching at home experienced an agonising hour of watching us bumble slowly through the undergrowth while they screamed “LEFT!! LOOK UP! GO LEFT!!! It’s just over there!! Arrrgghhhh!!” at their screens.

“It had now been 12 hours since we last saw our support crew, and as the transition was being packed up when we arrived, there was no food or water for us at this point.”

As the terrain got vaguer, and it felt like we’d be walking for days due to the slow progress over downed trees and through tight, scratchy scrubby bush in the dark, we finally managed to pop out onto the road on the other side, sans checkpoint, just as the sun was rising. The daylight brought the demoralising realisation that we’d just wasted (another) whole hour without getting a single checkpoint.

Nevertheless, we rallied ourselves, survival-walked around the (in hindsight more obvious) road loop without incident, and arrived back at TA5 just before 10 am. It had now been 12 hours since we last saw our support crew, and as the transition was being packed up when we arrived there was no food or water for us at this point. Leg 7, a 30 km mountain bike leg, stood between us and a much-needed replenishment of our supplies.

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Above & Below: Although incredibly challenging, there are moments of incredible beauty, if only you get a chance to stop and look around.
Photos: ©Ben Cirulis & GeoQuest

As we set out from the transition, I think we all retreated into our own private worlds to manage our mental states. It felt good to be rolling again, but not for long – we were about to roll into our biggest blunder yet.
For reasons best understood as exhaustion, we decided instead of following the road to CP 9, to take what looked like a shorter & less steep road that led to an indistinct track that should have lead us through. This track had piles of logs placed across it at regular intervals to discourage 4WD’s, and after hauling our bikes over several of them they certainly discouraged us from heading back when the track stopped matching up with the map. So we pressed on doggedly until finally we had to admit we were Properly Lost as the midday sun beat down on us unsympathetically.

By this point, we had been moving for over 28 hours, we were down to our last rations of food & water, and were probably less than 5 km into the penultimate 30 km leg.
As we sat, exhausted & despairing, not knowing which way to go, we made the hard call to break out the emergency cell phone to try and find our way out. No service! A faint panic swept through us as we realised we had to get ourselves out, there was no way to reach help even if we needed it. We decided to head up the hill back towards where we might get some cell phone reception, and finally, we burst out onto a main fire road! Great! But we still didn’t know where we were or what road it was, so we checked the phone again. One bar of service!

“we took ourselves squarely by the shoulders, looked ourselves straight in the eye and said, “It’s ok. You’ve done enough. It is time to call it.”

As we made the tough decision to retire, a few things happened in quick succession that changed our situation so completely it eclipsed the sheer futility & despair from moments before.
While messaging the support crew that we were retiring and would need collecting, a car approached! Proof of human existence, hoorah! Then another team came whistling down the road! It was the Wonder Women, and they were on their way to CP 9, which was apparently just up ahead! Miraculously we had gotten ourselves back on track to the checkpoint! We arranged a pickup from CP 9 where we would retire from the race, nearly 30 hours after we started. Talking to the Wonder Women on the way to the checkpoint, Gen from WW and Allie from our team decided to carry on & finish together, unranked. 

Thus began an excruciating half hour as the rest of our team grappled with the psychological implications of “giving up”.

Should we give it a go? Are we giving up too easily? No, we probably wouldn’t make it. We might hurt ourselves. But I feel ok after a break, maybe I can keep going? Until our unfailingly supportive support crew arrived and we took ourselves squarely by the shoulders, looked ourselves straight in the eye and said, “It’s ok. You’ve done enough. It is time to call it. This is the right decision; you can go home and be proud of yourselves for all of the things that you’ve achieved during this adventure.”

Allie & Gen finally crossed the finish line at 8:30 pm, over 36 hours after we all begun, after a mammoth ride & final night paddle. We were so incredibly proud of them for grinding it out! It was disappointing for the whole team not to finish, but we did give it everything and managed some real achievements along the way.

Achievements, you say?

What achievements are there in not finishing a race? Which is a great question, and one that I have been pondering myself. Overall, I loved the race; the first 12 hours were just pure fun (also known as Type I Fun), while the remainder is where I really LEARNED stuff (which is where the Type II Fun kicks in). Learning things about yourself is always an achievement, so I’ll take it & share with you some of the things I’ve learned:

  • When signing up for a 24 hour race, it’s worth inquiring as to what the 24 hours represents – the duration for the winners, the average team, or most teams (this would help to set expectations upfront!)
  • Do not have your period. If you can’t avoid being a woman entirely, at least do not have your period. It’s an unspeakable horror; just don’t do it. Nuff said.
  • It is incredible to find out how you’re able to just keep going, long after you reached previous limits of time or distance! As well as being able to reset after a mistake or tough section and persevere. I had been worried about how hard the overnight section was going to be mentally, but I barely even noticed that; it was easy to just keep on trudging ahead. The same can’t be said for after sunrise though – I had expected in my mind to be finishing or at least near the final leg by sunrise, and to still be SO far away was psychologically galling. To keep going as long as we did in this state still amazes me.
  • I’ve raced in mixed teams before, but this was my first time racing in an all-female team. It’s a different dynamic, and feels like every team member needs to really hold their own. I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of our teamwork, and I really felt like we all leaned on each other and in turn held each other up as needed over the course of the weekend.
  • And finally, finding success in failure. I’ll be honest, this is a tough one. It’s hard to feel like you can stand up and say that you’re proud of your achievement, when you have failed in your clear & stated aim of finishing a course.  This is what made it so tough to make the call to retire – nobody wants to feel like a failure after hanging in there for so long and giving so much! But success in Type II activities is about learning – like learning how to tell whether you’re letting yourself off easy or making the right call for everyone’s safety.  Ultimately, I’m proud that we got as far as we did safely as a team, that we raced for far longer than we thought we could and succeeded in having a true Adventure Racing experience. 

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