Team Merrell tackles the world's toughest adventure race - The Godzone
This is the story of how they battled for seven days and 529km against some of the toughest terrain in the world.
Four of Merell’s Alpha Pack took part in the GODZone, one of the world’s toughest adventure races.
41 teams biked, trekked and kayaked over some of the world’s most difficult terrain. Only half made it to the finish line.
Scroll to the bottom to watch the full 25 minute documentary film
Meet the Merrell Team
Coming from the four corners of the globe, Team Merrell Alpha comprised Graham Bird from South Africa, Tobias Mews from the UK, Catalina Gerstle from Chile and Ben Gibson, a UK national living in New Zealand.
Graham was the only member of the team to previously complete an expedition length adventure race. Tobias had never sea kayaked before. Catalina had never raced over six hours. And Ben had never competed as part of a team.
Click the arrows on the left and right to find out more about them.
Graham 'Tweet' Bird
Navigator & Team Captain
Graham was the team captain and our only experienced adventure racer. He's been involved in top-level sport since the age of 15, representing South Africa in marathon canoeing, taking part in adventure races and MTB races and successfully organizing a series of trail running races.
His team - the Merrell Adventure Addicts - placed 5th in the 2013 Adventure Racing World Championships.
BRITISH JOURNALIST & ADVENTURE ATHLETE
The Pack's consulting editor, Tobias Mews is a former British Army captain and is now one of the UK's leading adventure journalists. He writes a weekly column for The Telegraph as well as regularly contributing to national magazines such as Men's Health, Men's Fitness and Runner's World about topics ranging from zombie fun runs to jungle ultramarathons.
He's twice finished the Marathon des Sables, coming Top Brit in 2011 and 15th overall in 2013. He's got a Top 200 finish in the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and placed 2nd in the Jungle Ultra.
One of our Chilean Alphas and a keen sportswoman, until recently Catalina was a Product Manager for Merrell Chile. A talented triathlete, accomplished runner and competitive hockey player, Catalina was the youngest and least experienced member of our GODZone team.
Sadly, she picked up an injury early on in the race and had to pull out.
Our native New Zealander, Ben Gibson is a competitive slalom kayaker and enjoys sea kayaking around the New Zealand coast. He's also a trail runner, a trained climber and keen mountain biker. Shortly before joining Team Merrell for the GODZone, he took part in the New Zealand Coast-to-Coast - a run, bike and kayak race.
Inspired by his experiences, Ben wrote a Pack Story about what it was like to compete in the toughest race he's ever done.
Sabrina Verjee joined the team during the sixth stage, as her own team had pulled out due to injury.
A ten year veteran of expedition length adventure races, Sabrina was a welcome addition to the team.
Stage by stage
The route was kept a tightly guarded secret until the day before the event, when the teams were given a breakdown of each stage and the distances involved. This then allowed them to pack their transition boxes according to what they'd need in each stage.
On the morning of the race, they were given the maps, which they then had to mark up with the route they'd follow.
Click the arrows to the left or right to see a break down of each stage.
- Trail length: 330mi
- Climb: 36000ft
The race began with a twist, as the team is split into two, each tackling Stages 1 & 2 separately. Tobias and Ben team together and are first in the water for the sea kayak leg, whilst Graham and Catalina take on the coasteering section.
For Ben, an experienced paddler, a 12km sea kayak leg was a piece of cake. But Tobias, who'd never before sat in a sea kayak, let alone kayaked in the sea was (excuse the pun) in deep water.
There was a big swell, making the water choppy. A number of teams capsized - something that Ben and Tobias were keen to avoid. By the time Graham and Catalina got into the water, the course had been shortened by a few kilometers due to the adverse weather.
NEXT: 9km of coasteering
The coasteering section involved a run around the Kaikoura peninsula. The first few kilometers were relatively straightforward, but any notion of remaining dry was abandoned when the teams had to swim out to collect CP1, which happened to be located on a small island about 80m from shore.
Once back on dry land, the team found themselves scrambling over sharp rocks: one slip of the foot and it would have been game over. And of course, there was the challenge of trying not to get bitten by any of the hundreds of seals scattered along the way.
It was tempting to run hard on this section - but with over 500km still to go, there was no point tiring the legs out too early on.
NEXT: 53km of mountain biking
53km Mountain Bike
Stage 3 is where the true adventure began. It's also the point where the team, now reunited, waved goodbye to civilization for a few days as they headed out of Kaikoura towards the Puhi Peaks.
The first 30 kilometers were relatively easy going. But soon, the hard work began with cheeky 600m climb along an old 4x4 track. Sadly, they didn't make enough of the daylight, and missed a crucial turn. They found themselves bush-bashing their way up another 1000m of mountain, bikes on their back, for over six hours.
Once back on the road, they made the 1500m treacherous descent down a washed out gravel road to the Clarence River, during which time Catalina took a fall and sprained her knee. All of the team arrived at the next TA bruised, battered and exhausted.
NEXT: a 51km trek
Any relief at finishing the tough mountain bike leg quickly disappeared, when after setting off on the 51km trek to summit Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku, the team were forced to turn around. Catalina's knee had started to swell up, making it impossible for her move it. With enormous boulders to clamber over and a mountain to climb, the team collectively made the difficult decision to continue without Catalina.
Now a team of three, Graham, Ben and Tobias retraced their footsteps and continued their journey along the George Stream - a boulder-ridden uphill slog. They walked through the night, stopping for a few hours sleep at the bottom of the mountain, before making their assault, summiting at around 11am the next morning.
NEXT: a 151km mountain bike ride
151km Mountain Bike
The Molesworth Muster Trail is an iconic road that passes through Molesworth Station, the largest and most remote working farm in New Zealand.
Having just come off the trek, which took them almost 40 hours, they had a couple hours of sleep before setting off at midnight. It didn't take long before the team became prey to the dreaded sleepmonster - hallucinations caused by intense fatigue.
Cycling through the night, the team were rewarded at dawn with the most magnificent scenery - a reason for visiting such an iconic area of New Zealand. It takes most people 4 days to make the journey across the Molesworth. It took the Alphas just 12 hours.
NEXT: a 38km trek
The team are once again four strong, having been joined at the end of the bike leg by Sabrina Verjee, whose own team had dropped out due to injuries.
At 38km and 1850m of ascent it doesn't appear at first glance to be a tremendously difficult trek, compared to the other stages. However, this turned out to be one of the most challenging stages for any team who didn’t make the correct route choice: to go over the the Glynn Wye Range of mountains or around it, where there was dense kiwi bush.
The team chose the former. But with daylight running out, they virtually ran up the mountain. Much to their irritation, they came off the mountain range too early, to find that the only way out was to hike through the night along 15km of stream that later turned into a fast-flowing river.
NEXT: a 101km canoe trek
The 101km canoe leg along the Hurunui river that leads down towards the ocean represented a crucial point in the race, as it contained the 'Full Course' cut-off. All of the teams that didn’t make it in time would be ‘short coursed’ and have to finish the race by mountain bike.
The initial parts of the river contained plenty of grade 2+ rapids to keep the team on their toes - in particular the Maori Gully, a 2km stretch of big grade 3+ rapids and Hawarden Gap.
Once they’d reached the cut-off point, the team could relax a little knowing that they’d be allowed to finish the full course. It was time to soak up the scenery and enjoy the ride. And because they weren’t allowed to paddle at night (enforced by a ‘dark zone’), they even managed to get a full night’s sleep on the banks of the river.
NEXT: a 25km mountain bike ride
25km Mountain Bike
With the tough but scenic canoe stage behind them, Stage 8 was a straightforward ride that took the team from the mouth of the Hurunui River to TA8 which is located in Caverhill. At 25km, it was relatively short, but provided the teams with plenty of stunning scenery as they passed Port Robinson, the beautiful rock formations of Cathedral Gully, Gore Bay and headed up towards Cheviot.
The team finished this section of the race in 1hr 57min - the third fastest split of all the teams and 1 minute off the former 2012 World Champions, Team Seagate.
NEXT: a 25km trek
After their blisteringly fast Stage 8, any notion that the end was in sight was quickly dismissed in this tough orienteering stage. The first control point was only one kilometer into the stage, but it took the team a full two hours to find it, thanks to it being placed in the middle of an area of thorny bushes.
It turned out that every control point was cunningly placed somewhere difficult to find - often marked by an indigenous tree or bush.
Having collected the first two control points, the team then made their way across the Waiau River - which involved stripping down to their bare essentials and swimming across. They then made their way down towards the beach for a 10km stretch, collecting the three remaining checkpoints hidden off the route.
NEXT: a 38km mountain bike ride
38km Mountain Bike
Stage 10 was an another orienteering stage - but this time on two wheels. The area they travelled through - Glenstrae - is most commonly used for quad bike adventures and many of the tracks and trails they followed weren’t actually on the map…
With plenty of gates to open, lots of cunningly placed control points and some tough climbs (850m worth) - the team were glad that they weren’t doing all of it at night.
Indeed, their reward for all that hard work was watching the sun rise above the ocean - which they took a moment to appreciate as they were close to finishing the stage. All that remained was a 26km sea kayak back to Kaikoura.
NEXT: 26km of sea kayaking
26km Sea Kayak
With 26km left of their 529km journey, it seemed fitting to finish the GODZone race in the same way that they started - by sea kayak. But with the looming threat of a massive swell, it was touch and go whether the team would be allowed in the water. To ensure they arrived in one piece, a safety boat escorted them to the finish, much to the relief of Tobias, who was receiving his sea kayak baptism of fire.
After 144 hours of non-stop racing, the team arrived at the finish line. Only half of the 41 teams actually managed to finish the full course and, although unranked due to Catalina dropping out early on in the race, Team Merrell Alpha was one of them.
NEXT: the finish line!
Finally, our Alphas crossed the finish line, 144 hours and 50 minutes after setting off. After celebrating with champagne and chicken pie, our Alphas went their separate ways to catch up on some much needed sleep and let their limbs recover.
Total time: 144hrs 50 mins
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