In the passport queue at Mauritius airport, waiting for the connecting flight to Rodrigues, I spied an Osprey pack-wearing, helmet-carrying athletic figure. A kindred spirit?
“Are you here for the race?”
“Of course”, said Francky David from team Powerbar Swiss Explorers, with a big smile. What a cool guy. He’d arrived a day ahead of the rest of the team. We got to nattering about Expedition Africa, and why he was here.
Powerbar Swiss Explorers represent the best of Expedition Africa. Not as individuals, nor as a specific team, but why it is the race yields such a high return rate. Their first was Swaziland, then Knysna, skipped Baviaans, but were back for Namaqualand, then of course Rodrigues, and are in discussion about Lesotho already.
It’s no secret that this year is particularly poignant for the team, as the race is officially dedicated to the memory of teammate Julien Samson who died tragically while training last October. The main motivator behind them competing in Rodrigues, his death left the team determined to celebrate his life in racing, and Francky stepped up to take empty seat. Julien’s parents will be present, to see for themselves why it was that Julien spoke so highly of the event, and smile through the tears.
Francky and I talked about other races, other countries. The adventure racing community is small, and tight, and we race for many reasons, but one of the biggest is the shared experience, the ‘team’ aspect of the sport, and the greater tribe we belong to. When someone gets badly injured, or worse, the ripples are immediate and fierce.
Fans of other sports will hold similar opinions about the tightness of their community, whether it’s a footballer dying unexpectedly, or a driver in an accident, but adventure racing is unique in that we literally suffer and struggle together, through the worst conditions, in the depths of our being, and carry our team mates to the finish. That is fundamental to the sport.
In talking about other races, we agreed how some events don’t quite appreciate the competitors for making the effort and sacrifices to participate. Francky described one event where the race staff didn’t greet the teams beforehand, had no-one at the finish, and only knew the overall time of his team because they texted it to the RD. This was quite aside from the chaotic race preparations, and substandard delivery of the event.
There are other, slicker events, where things run as expected, but it still feels….cold? There is an anti-climax at the closing ceremony. It feels tacked on. We know that just to stage a successful event is a mammoth, often thankless, task, but if a race doesn’t make you feel welcome, doesn’t go the extra mile, will you return?
This morning Trevor Mullens was quoted by Godzone as saying it was “easily the best AR experience, the welcome and organisation was impeccable,” and it is why he is returning to the 2020 edition with even more Tiger Adventure teams than the four who attended last year.
With Expedition Africa, Stephan and Heidi have embraced the concept of family more than anywhere else, with Heidi’s constant refrain of “It’s all about love”, and how she personally stands on the finish line to embrace every team, no matter the time of day or how exhausted she might be.
Or Stephan wise cracking at Powerbar Swiss Explorers that he has a “special” stage for them, ever since they learned to “bundu-bash” their way forward when fierce bush and thorns might cause the lesser-inclined to scout for time-consuming detours. He knows the teams intimately, and they trust and respect his course creations.
The Mullers build relationship, they focus it on it as the core of their special recipe, and it is ultimately why we will be celebrating Julien at Rodrigues, and why surely Powerbar Swiss Explorers will be returning for many editions to come. (Although, truth be told, Francky says the real reason is they are just trying to understand Stephan’s strong Afrikaans accent. They hope to be able to understand it fully in maybe 10 years’ time).
Hey, no race is perfect. Virtually every event has hiccups which might cause irritation or frustration, but in the end, it comes down to this: there are some races which sell out every year. Within days, if not hours.
Expedition Africa has love in its heart, and it's obvious that teams want more. Encore!
The race starts on Sept 1st, at 13:00 local time (GMT+4). Follow the action on http://expafrica.live