The Coast2Coast is a 243km run, cycle and kayak from one side of New Zealand to the other. We start on the West coast of the South Island (at a beach called Kumara), and travel by road, river and riverbed, across the Alps mountains, to the city of Christchurch on the East coast. We have 18 hours to complete the event. It's going to be an awesome experience.
For me, the real value in taking on this challenge has been the various activities that I've had to learn in preparation. I had never kayaked or cycled (in a serious way) before, and the training has been hugely exciting and rewarding. In the process I have learned from some remarkable people and made many new friends.
Although I didn't admit it to anyone at the time I started kayaking, I'm actually fairly afraid of water. Specifically, I am afraid of being under it. I don't know why, it's not an especially rational fear, but it is very real. My introduction to paddling was made much easier though by the fact that it took place in summer, when the river was warm and the weather often sunny.
Lucky for me (although it didn't feel that way!), one of the first skills we were encouraged to learn was rolling the kayak from an inverted position. Time passes extremely quickly under water. This took me a while to learn to do reliably. What feels to me like 30 seconds I'm told really lasts around 5 seconds as viewed from the surface. Ash learned faster, and is far more tenacious than I am, always making at least 2 additional attempts to roll the kayak should the first attempt fail. Although of limited use on the actual event, learning to roll has given us a great boost of confidence in the water (me especially), and a better understanding of paddling technique.
Ash had the inspired idea of buying a second hand kayak from the club, and communing to work in it. During the summer we both clocked many hours of paddling experience in Ash's kayak (he was kind enough to allow me to borrow it). The river around Oxford is beautiful in the summer, and the warm weather makes for a lovely paddling experience.
I couldn't resist occasionally going out in the late evening, allowing the sun to set midway through my journey, so that on the return leg the night sky would be reflected in the still water, and I could sail across a beautiful sea of stars.
We owe a huge debt of thanks to the Oxford University Canoeing and Kayaking club, who have supported us in every way. In particular Anja Mizdrak (our instructor, or taskmaster as she often behaved!), and Tom Hearing, who was instrumental in organizing the various white water trips which were so valuable to use.
WHITE-WATER SAFETY AND RESCUE
One of the C2C entry requirements is that all contestants be competent on grade-2 water, and hold a certificate to prove it. This being the case, we headed up to North Wales to spend two days learning how to safely swim, paddle and rescue one another from white water. The course was led by an extremely jolly and incredibly knowledgeable instructor called George Fell, whose training we would strongly recommend to anyone. I've attended many First Aid courses before, but none where the latest peer-reviewed literature on human resuscitation was provided for me to read! Its was an invaluable learning experience.
Among the highlights of our trip to Wales was a water feature ominously called the Serpent's Tail. This was a ~30m long torrent of icy water crashing at speed through a small gorge, which narrowed sharply at it's downstream end. Although seasoned kayakers breeze down it (one of our number even attempted this without the use of a paddle!) it was certainly among the most demanding and scary experiences I have ever had. I was terrified, so much, that that I couldn't even pretend not to be (as is the standard practice for men everywhere). It must have been clear how distressed I was. My first attempt was a train-wreck (or kayak wreck). On my approach I snagged on a rock, pushed my kayak free, and wobbled swiftly towards the rapid sideways. Just before hitting the rapid I made an emergency exit from my boat, and then "navigated" the whole thing on my backside, taking in mouthfuls of water as the river dragged me repeatedly above and below the surface. Ash fared better, but capsized further into the rapid. Demoralised by our failure, we shrank from making a second attempt that day.
Fast flowing water can have an inhuman strength, which you don't fully imagine before you've experienced it for yourself. Just holding onto the rocky banks requires a huge effort, and the cold makes it difficult to breathe. But these experiences were a necessary part of our training, and we benefited enormously from the experience and wisdom of George.
The next day we returned to the Serpent's tail, and to our (or at least my) surprise, nailed the rapid first time without capsizing! What a thrill! We were both ecstatic, and hugely relieved, because the Serpent's Tail is harder than anything we can expect in New Zealand. We knew then, that were ready.
We left North Wales in high spirits, with heightened enthusiasm for the kayaking ahead of us in New Zealand - but also with caution, and a renewed respect for the awesome power of fast flowing water.
While I was acutely aware that white water kayaking was a challenge that warranted considerable focus and effort, I completely failed to anticipate the challenge presented by cycling. I'm a formidable runner, so I arrogantly assumed that riding a bike would be, well, like riding a bike. Cycling long distances at high speeds turned out to be hard work!
The first 55km of the event (bar a 3km running warm-up at the start) is completed on a racing bike. The route follows a gradual climb from the coast at Kumara junction, inland towards the Southern NZ Alps mountains. This first leg has to be completed within 2.5 hours, requiring an average speed of close to 30 kph, mostly (albeit gently) uphill. Our early efforts to simulate this stage taught us much about both our fitness, and our gear. Numerous punctures persuaded us to buy puncture-resistant tyres and inner-tubes. And we slogged extra hours in the gym to increase our stamina and strengthen our legs.
Our simulations of these first 55km have been continually hampered by shocking weather, with high winds and heavy rain. Despite this, we have certainly improved, and our most recent cycle on Feb 1st was encouraging. We achieved an average pace close to 30kph for the first half (with the wind behind us), but were slowed down later by the high winds. Its going to be close (meeting the time cut-off for the first cycling leg), but we are confident that we can make the time, and continue to complete the event.
As I write (the eve of February 6th) we both feel that we are ready, and well prepared for the event. It's taken huge amount of planning and training to get this far, and I can't wait to leave the miserable UK weather behind and get up into the mountains during the New Zealand summer. Wish us luck! - Will N.