Qwik-View: Naomi & Ash Whitehead (Team SwordFox)
QK: Congratulations to you both and the rest of team Swordfox, for your inspirational performance in the GODZone.
Ash, I know you have come from a strong cycling back ground. Have you always been involved with the outdoors or is that something that has come along as you moved on from top level cycling?
Ash: I actually started out as a multi-sporter, but even prior to that I was into hunting, tramping, mountaineering, white water paddling and mountain biking. My family is super outdoorsy. Cycling came about as part of multi-sport and ended up being how I spent my early 20s. It was a great opportunity to travel the world on a shoestring. I always aspired to do expedition racing from watching the Southern Traverse on the 6 o’clock news as a teenager. It was always something that appealed, but I knew there wasn’t much point getting into it until I was over 30 (partly cos it’s too bloody expensive!).
QK: Naomi, what background has lead you into Adventure Racing?
Naomi: I grew up on a farm in Southland and spent my childhood trying to keep up with my siblings at various sports and helping out on the farm which taught me many good life lessons. I constantly begged Mum and Dad to let me play every sport I could, but fortunately they had the sense to only let me play one at a time. At high school netball became my sport of choice with athletics and cross country running complementing this too. We always had bikes growing up. This was a necessary means to get ourselves to the school bus stop a few kilometres down the road.
My competitive nature meant I was often racing my older brother to get there first. Meeting Ash at uni lead me into a bit of mountain biking (I was terrible at first!). I did try triathlons for a couple of summers, but didn’t really enjoy the swimming.
Fast forward a few years and a ruptured knee ACL playing netball in Nelson had me under the surgeon’s knife to fix it. It was then I decided to give kayaking a go to preserve my knees and the cycling for rehab was fun. I’ve always done plenty of running and tramping. A couple of years later I did my first big adventure race (Godzone Chapter 2 – Mount Cook) and loved it.
QK: You have both had an amazing GODZone Chapter 5. It was very addictive watching your progress and your tussle with Yealand’s. What was the highlight of Chapter 5 for you each respectively?
Ash: The Matakitaki river. It is one of the best rivers around. Every year I spend time teaching WW kayaking on the Matakitaki and it has some of my favorite grade 2 -3 runs. Paddling the length of it in a day was something I have wanted to do for a while. We got SMASHED in horse terrace rapid, which was pretty fun. It was great to see mates from the NZ kayak school there to pick up the pieces for us.
Naomi: 8 weeks before Godzone I stepped aside from my previous team after a fight with a sharp rock while tramping. This ended with a deep slice to the front of my leg through which I could see my tibia bone. I was a bit stressed from work too so thought the best thing would be for me to give it a miss this year.
A couple of weeks later my leg healed amazingly well and a few changes at work had taken the pressure off dramatically. I was itching to get back into a Godzone team. Another girl had already committed to my previous team so when Swordfox needed an extra teammate 6 weeks out from the start I jumped at the chance. So for me just being able to race was amazing. Sharing the experience first hand with Ash was pretty special too.
QK: Naomi, a number of readers of my blog are preparing for their first Spring Challenge. What tips do you have for the first timers? What about some tips for those stepping up to the 9 hour?
Naomi: Spring Challenge is an ideal way to get into Adventure Racing. The rafting is low stress with super experienced raft guides taking you down the river then some fun times biking and hiking.
One of the cool things about adventure racing is that you get to hang out with a bunch of mates doing fun adventures both before and during the event.
Get out with teammates so you can get to know them well and practise some navigation are key elements. Most places in New Zealand have orienteering clubs that run various low key events both orienteering and rogaine style. These are ideal preparation for adventure race navigation. I try not to think of weekend trips as training but just as fun adventures with friends. Being able to have fun and laugh and help each other out when anyone in the team is tired or struggling is ideal too.
QK: Adventure Racing is truly a team event. The designated navigator often gets a lot of coverage in the media. What are the key roles you both fulfil in the team?
Ash: We are lucky in Swordfox as while Brent is the best on the maps all of us can navigate so we all spent some time on the maps. To be honest though we don’t really have defined roles. All of us are experienced and know what needs to be done. If someone is struggling we help them. If there is a job to do we do it. The name of the game is efficiency. Work together well and you will be fast.
Naomi: Pretty much what Ash said. My day job is being a General Practitioner so I usually sort out the team first aid kit. During the race if anyone has any major medical issues or injuries on course I help them out. Luckily it has only ever been relatively small cuts or bruised toenails that need sorting.
QK: During the GODZone, how much sleep did you take as a team? How did you determine when you will sleep?
Ash: We had 5 hours sleep during the race. For a 3-4 day race we work on a rough formula of no sleep on the first night then 2 hours per night after that as a minimum. The real challenge though is finding places to sleep. It is only worth trying to sleep if it is going to be quality. We had a great 2 hours on the deck of a bach at Rotoroa and then an OK, but not brilliant sleep at the Transition Area (TA) before the Mt Owen trek.
Generally we try not to sleep in TAs as they are noisy and you are often a bit wound up / excited. Huts are ideal, but are often not there when you want them. It is ideal to sleep from 2-4 am ish, but this rarely works out. We also try not to use our tent as it can mean a lot of faff. Ideally a 2 hour sleep will mean stopping for 2 hrs and 10 minutes. 5 minutes to faff either side of the sleep.
QK: During the GODZone you obviously need to fuel your body. How did you keep the energy levels nice and high through out the race? How often did you eat a hot meal? Did you know about the Absolute Wilderness (AW) catering on course prior to arriving there? Do you have any special treats you like to treat yourself with during the event?
Ash: Food is pretty important. Constant input = constant output (energy not other outputs). We roughly work on one thing an hour to stay topped up. Variety is the key. Not too many bars. Lots of savoury items and lots of fat.
We managed to get a few hot pies on route and the AW hot meals were the only hot meals. In the scheme of things this was quite a few. Normally we would go the whole race with cold food. Yes we knew there was going to be hot food on the course somewhere. The only real treat is anything fresh we can buy en-route. Eating becomes a massive challenge after about day 2 when your mouth starts to break down. The ulcers set in and the tongue swells, so it is hard to enjoy much at all. Pork crackling is a personal favorite.
Naomi: Before GODZone this year it had been 2 years since I had done a long race so I had forgotten a little bit exactly what it’s like keeping up energy levels during a race. I aim to eat something decent every hour. Sometimes I will set an hourly alarm on my watch to remind myself to keep eating. During the first night I got to a point where physically I felt good, but was a bit sleepy and had a slight feeling of nausea. So I found it hard to keep eating regularly. When this happens you do just have to force yourself to keep eating otherwise 3-4 hours later your energy levels take a huge dive.
A variety is key and sometimes your preferred food changes even during a race. While it does become a bit of a chore to keep eating it can also be fun to look forward to the next snack especially if you have a good range to choose from.
The Absolute Wilderness hot meal and coffee was gold and warmed us up well after getting a bit damp kayaking down the lake. Another favourite of mine in GODZone this year was beef jerky. Unfortunately one of my packets of this went floating down the Matakitaki River when we flipped!
QK: Rule No. 1 of Adventure Racing is don’t team up with your significant other for an Adventure Race. What did you do to make this successful? Would you recommend it?
Ash: Mmmm never heard that rule. The crux of it is that an expedition race is just a massive adventure and you only want to do massive adventures with certain people – good mates who share the same values and objectives. Nomes and I definitely fit that category. We have been on a number of really challenging adventures together in different environments. We work well together and know how to handle each other when one of us is struggling. Saying that this year was the first time we have raced together in an expedition race so we were a little unsure of how it would go, but it was exactly as we expected and not too different from being on any other mission together.
Would I recommend it? Only if you would go on a really hard mountaineering, tramping, kayaking, or riding expedition together with two other mates. Try that first. If it doesn’t work, doing it in a race isn’t going to be any easier!
Naomi: It is usually me who gets grumpy first when we are tired. I was pretty excited to have the chance to race with Ash this year, but was mindful that it could be a challenge to our relationship! In saying that we have faced plenty of even harder challenges together. I made it a bit of a goal of mine to make it work and it was great.
Brent and Stu were awesome teammates too. I found out afterwards Ash had sneakily told them if I was going through a low patch at any time during the race he was keen for someone else to be the one to help motivate me. Luckily the only time this was needed was biking up Takaka Hill when I was just about falling asleep on my bike. The boys were all awesome. I laughed when Ash told me their tactics afterwards!!!
QK: What is the next adventure for you both individually, as a couple and with the rest of Team Swordfox.
Ash: Well the list is long. We just paddled Cook Strait to Wellington on Saturday which was an epic 100km of paddling over 12 hours, 7 of which were in complete darkness. Highlights were the phosphorescence, dolphins in Tory Channel at 11 pm and almost being taken out by an albatross in the middle of the Cook Strait at 5 am.
The winter is likely to involve plenty of ski touring, winter mountaineering and mountain-biking. I always have one eye on the weather and an ear open for opportunities. It is great having mates who are keen to go on adventures no matter what they are. Often the weather and conditions will determine exactly what the adventures are.
I am spoilt working as an outdoor education instructor in Nelson. My job keeps me fit and current in skills. My students inspire me to get out and enjoy the bounty of outdoor opportunities the back country offers.
Naomi: I was planning to put the feet up and not do anything massive in the few weeks after GODzone, then the opportunity came up to paddle from Picton across Cook Strait into Wellington Harbour in the weekend. It was too good to refuse. I loved it. Once again I found myself as the only female in a group of 7 of us. I compensated by talking lots to stick up for myself and at one stage was told jokingly ‘man you can talk girl’.
Aside from that I’m pretty keen to get back out onto some technical mountain bike trails and I am coaching a group of Nayland College kids in adventure racing. The kids are super keen and it’s great to see them having fun and working well as a team.
The Adventure Racing World Champs are in Australia in November. I’m pretty keen to race in a world champs event so who knows. Brent is a fellow Nelsonian so no doubt we’ll be doing a few trips with him and his girlfriend Megan over the winter months. We haven’t made any plans regarding Team Swordfox as yet.
QK: What have you learned in the last 12 months that you believe more people should know?
Ash: Not sure if I learnt it in the last 12 months, but lifestyle including all aspects from work, recreation and mental and physical health is far more important than having a big mortgage and nice car.
Naomi: Having good physical and mental health is pertinent to having a happy life. This usually means having a good support network of friends and family who can help you through any of life’s challenges (and there will always be challenges). I like to remember that there is always time for friends and family, sometimes it is much more important to spend an afternoon with friends or family than it is to go out training. There will always be time to go for a run but people aren’t around forever so make the most of their company while you can. You never know when you might need a favour from a friend and they will remember your kindness.
QK: What are the two biggest training mistakes you have made and how did you come back from them?