Fine Details Made The Difference
Whew. That was a good one. And so frequent in AR, a sprint finish after days of racing, in this case 70hrs 40 mins. Swedes Greener Adventure Team Powered CykelKraft won Expedition Africa 2019 Rodrigues in fine style, narrowly beating last year’s winners, Team AR Blizzard of Russia. Just 15 minutes separated them.
I saw the Russians lose it. Lose the race, and lose their steam. CP 109 was down by the shore, just a couple of hundred metres from where we’d lunched with the Sweaty Betty’s pre-race. The CP was tied to a tree, an A4 of correx, no flag, inconspicuous. As the last CP before T11, itself only 1.5km down the beach, it was nothing special.
But lo, this day it came to be the deciding factor in who would top the podium.
When I hit the sand, two photographers were crouched across the riverside down beach, hoping to catch the teams against a scenic rugged backdrop. A 100m away or so, it looked great.
But, as a racer, I preferred the track I’d used to the beach, parallel to the river. Coming down a narrow river valley, I assumed the teams would look for the easiest option, would “follow the flow” as Jonas Anderson would say.
They popped into view, just where expected. Immediately crossing the river, they ran over to the tree, spotted the CP, dibbed and set off at a hard pace. Jonas had just enough time to say they were hurting, that “heat stroke was very close”.
Sweating heavily, running on beach sand, they disappeared around the headland, the photographers racing alongside for their pics.
I hung back. Surely the Russians couldn’t be far behind?
Just 2 minutes later, 4 heads rounded the corner, same place as the previous team. Unlike GAT, they stayed on their side of the river, skirted around the curve, then dropped down anyway to cross the water. They hit the beach at least 100m down from the CP, and set off in pursuit of the prize.
And ground to a halt. Where was the CP? Glancing around, scanning the beach, nearby trees, a broad expanse, they were spread across a wide area.
They were no longer running, but now trudged back and forth, calling to each other, frustrated.
Their navigator studied the map, handed it to another, search, search, search, SEARCH! Flippin’ heckski! (In Russian).
I watched, shaking my head, unable to say anything.
They moved up the beach, into the grove of woods where the CP hung.
Still no joy. Back and forth. Within 10m of their target, then 5m, then away.
Finally, a shout from near the river. One of the team had moved around to the angle GAT had taken into the CP, which made it easily visible.
They walked over to dib, not ran. Punched. Dejectedly. Started walking off on their original course down the beach.
Then started running again, feet heavy in the sand. Maybe there was a chance?
Ten minutes had elapsed, for a CP that took GAT 30 seconds. If there was an element of luck in the difference, who knows? The maps were very rough, a poor comparison to proper topos. Blizzard thought they’d actually read them more accurately than GAT, but that’s a matter of debate.
There was an element of luck in the tides throughout the race. Some teams scraped their boats over coral where 10 minutes later teams became stuck. Currents swept some teams a fraction further than those who weren’t. Some people had sails fail where others had luck with identical setups.
GAT only overtook Blizzard between this CP and the previous one. Blizzard had done a truly incredible job working their way up from the back of the field after the snorkelling, having to wait at the zipline for 40 minutes while GAT hardly had to break stride. Blizzard kept on push push pushing, until eventually they were in the lead.
Both teams were depleted. GAT had left T10 on the 3hr trek with only 750ml of water each, in baking conditions, such was the rush to beat Blizzard. Natalia had a scraped knee which looked infected. She’d found it difficult to answer me at CP109 because she “was so hot, (she) couldn’t talk. (Her) mind had turned off.”
If Blizzard had dibbed at the same pace as GAT, they’d have entered the final transition to SUP almost at the same time. The SUP itself would have become an epic contest, and maybe Blizzard would have won. Who knows? Does it matter?
The Swedes led the race right from the epic snorkel, until they got stopped by the sandbank. All mistakes considered, they never amounted to the amount of time it took to relaunch their boat, and yet, they also had a sleep and food where they might not otherwise. But for the sandbank, I doubt they’d have slept thereafter, such was the pressure.
At the finish, AR Team Blizzard weren’t bitter. They were laughing, happy. Natalia said the location was paradise, heaven – how could one be upset for getting the podium in such a place, or ignore their epic performance?
Greener Adventure Team were stoked yet reflective. A year since their last race, preceded by 4 failures (ARWC in Reunion injury withdrawal, Expedition India altitude sickness, Altay Xtrail in China cancelled hours before the start, Nordic AR hypothermia withdrawal), it will take a while to process their victory. They didn’t perform at their best, they didn’t win all the stages, but their preparation was meticulous and they performed at a level of consistency that no other team could match. That deserves a win.
Both teams saw the final SUP as inspired, a brilliant way to finish the race, an unavoidably slower pace after the hectic before. I stopped my scooter en route to the finish, to watch GAT as they paddled the last 500m. Onlookers would have thought it was just people out for a watery stroll, sunlight glittering, a sea of turquoise. It was Magic.