In January, 21 athletes took part in the hardest adventure race ever staged in New Zealand. Most said it was impossible, that nobody could finish the course. Mike White travelled to Southland to find out if they were right, and to see if anyone could beat The Revenant.
Night had been worst, nothing but a headlamp, map and compass to guide them – the rest just blackness where demons lived.
Chadd Wright had seen them, seen things in the depths of the riverbed and forest, thought the ground was shaking under him. He knew then that The Revenant had won, that his mind was being warped, that they had to pull out. They just had to get home now.
By the time Wright and teammate Shawn Webber emerged onto the road that led back to race headquarters, they were ghosts. They hadn’t slept for two days, had run out of food 15 hours ago. Their skin was grey as stone, faces cast somewhere between a grin and a grimace, eyes fixed on some hoped-for horizon. Dead men walking. Tough dead men walking.
Wright had spent 12 years as a US Navy Seal, one of only 18 in his class of 300 recruits who made it through training. He’d served around the world, been involved in special operations throughout Africa, pushed himself to the limit time and again. Webber had been a US Navy rescue swimmer, and was now a civil engineer and top endurance athlete in the States.
For an hour, they marched wordlessly towards the end, the sky lightening, pink flecks on the underside of eastern clouds fast swallowed by approaching rain. The first birds sang from somewhere in the tussock, a shrill and evil chorus that seemed to jeer Wright and Webber as they passed, celebrating their failure. “You weren’t good enough. You quit.”
But all those things had been going through Wright and Webber’s minds for hours, and when they finally arrived back at The Revenant base high in the Southland mountains to end their race around 6.30am, there was no room for excuse or evasion.
“It’s brutal out there, man,” Wright sighed, his languid Georgia accent amplified by exhaustion. “I did not have enough respect for the terrain.”
He stared at the ground between his legs, stabbing his walking poles idly into the grass. “I tell you, man, makes me want to cry.”
“Exit light/Enter night/Take my hand/We’re off to Never-never Land.”
Twenty-one competitors had made it this far, arriving at the start line beside a corrugated iron hut above Garston for the first running of The Revenant. Styled on a famous American trail race, the Barkley Marathons, The Revenant required competitors to run 200km over four laps on Blackmore Station, just south of Lake Wakatipu. They would need to climb 16,000m in total, and reach 14 checkpoints on each lap to complete the course, and had 60 hours to finish. They would have only a map and compass for navigation. No GPS, no phones, no watches, no support crews.
Among them were military members, including an SAS commander, Ironmen and some of the country’s top ultra-marathon racers. Lean and focused people; people used to extremes; people prepared to suffer.
It was 11pm Thursday when they began, headlamps flicking crazily across the ground as they headed downhill, their lights gradually diluted then drowned by the fog and night.
For months, they had trained phenomenal distances and given over their lives to chasing The Revenant. Throughout that time, they’d been assailed about why they were doing it, beset by doubters who didn’t see the point, but supported by family and friends who understood what the race was and what it meant. It was simply about the challenge, the test, the contest.
As much of a cliche as that might seem, those who entered wanted to know where their limit was, what the boundaries of endurance were, where the threshold between effort and agony lay. Life was too easy, they agreed, adventure having been excised, the unknown traded for routine and comfort. The Revenant was a counter to all that.
A lot of people wouldn’t get it, but that was okay. Bugger them. Ignore them. Line up. Go.
So there was Bronwyn McKeage, a history teacher from Rangitoto College; Tim Sutton, a furniture upholsterer from Wellington; Ian Evans who worked in a Wānaka ski shop in winter and mowed lawns in summer; Matt Hamblett, a mental health nurse from Invercargill; Jean Beaumont, a Wellington air traffic controller; Andrew Charles, an investment manager from Queensland; Dave Viitakangas, a Queenstown builder; Matt Jeans and Tom Reynolds, doctors who’d met at med school a decade ago. Backpacks and bottles and jackets and maps and food. A huddle of well-wishers left behind and 200km of unknown stretching into a miasma of dust and mist.
Misinterpreting maps, straying from their course, choosing the wrong stream to follow, saw nearly everyone search for hours in increasing circles with mounting anger. Two hours, four hours, eight hours – when they finally found it, there was little relief, just boiling frustration at how simple it should have been and how much time had been wasted and lost.
Leo Pershall from California spent all day searching for the checkpoint. “I’ve literally walked probably 20km inside that tiny beech forest and I’m just done with it. I was starting to know every tree.” He never found it.
Pershall’s story in getting to The Revenant is itself remarkable. At 17, he’d found himself homeless and hit the road, hitchhiking across the United States, travelling with The Grateful Dead for a while, selling grilled-cheese sandwiches in parking lots, sleeping under overpasses, eating from dumpsters. “It was great, even the bad stuff – it’s all cool stories or good experience.”
He then shifted to Colorado’s mountains, built a cabin, settled down for a bit, and discovered he had a natural talent for long-distance cycling. Ultimately, Pershall became one of America’s top endurance cyclists, before retiring and deciding to sail around the world with wife Laurel.
In 2017, they left San Francisco in their 28ft yacht, the smallest boat making the 13,000km journey across the Pacific that year. En route, he discovered a melanoma under his left arm, dangerously close to his lymph nodes, and when they got to American Samoa, Pershall received biopsy results confirming it was malignant.
“I put on my running shoes and took a run to the top of the mountain, just to get some perspective. And my thought was, what do I want to do with myself? What are the things I would regret not doing in this life? And it was a lot of endurance events – row an ocean, sail around the world, become an elite ultra-runner – weird stuff. It sort of scared me into getting myself into shape and I quit smoking and I thought, hey, I’ll find something to do in New Zealand, maybe a 100-mile trail run. My wife found this and said, ‘Oh, I got one!’”
So Pershall, 41, entered The Revenant, had his melanoma removed by surgeons in Western Samoa, then carried on through the Pacific, training on every island they stopped at, before arriving in New Zealand in late 2018. As he lined up for the race, he lifted his jacket and thermals to show the 8cm scar where the melanoma had been. “It reminds me of why I do it.”
Twenty-four hours later, Pershall arrived back at race headquarters, having decided with night falling that continuing to search for checkpoint eight was pointless. In pulling out, he was frustrated he’d not been pushed physically, his navigation having sabotaged him. “It requires a level that has no margin for error. But it was fun.” In autumn, Pershall will sail to Fiji, then return to New Zealand for another attempt at The Revenant in 2020.
“Oh, I’m coming back next year, no doubt about it. Oh yeah. I don’t like to be beat by stuff. And it’s not a matter of, ‘I’m going to prove that I’m harder than this thing.’ But now I know what it is, I’d like to set a loftier goal and have a better chance of reaching it.”
The leading trio of Tim Sutton, Ian Evans and Wellington energy analyst Angus Watson had completed lap one in around 15 hours, just after 2pm. After a 30-minute break for food and dry gear, they were on their way again, in the sun that had finally banished the fog.
But soon after, Sutton dropped out, the effects of losing a crucial bottle of food early in the race having depleted his energy and crippled his chances. Watson seemed strong, but paid for surging ahead, up to the tops from the Nokomai River in the afternoon heat, and capitulated soon after. Others completed their first lap, then realised there was no chance they could finish leg two in the required time and ceremonially tapped The Revenant whisky bottle to signify they were done, while organisers played Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in the background.
Despite yielding, they arrived back to applause and hugs, legs tattooed red where matagouri, bush lawyer and Spaniard grass – the golden-stemmed vandal that pocks the tussock – had found bare skin. They cursed bad decisions and navigation errors. They praised the landscape and the course. They wanted food, they needed sleep.
By moonlit midnight, only Evans, Wellington policy analyst Alastair Shelton, Auckland event organiser Shaun Collins, and the doctor duo of Matt Jeans and Tom Reynolds remained on their second lap.
Many picked Collins to pick up time and make the 30-hour cut-off at 5am Saturday to begin lap three. With his wild hair and beard, and a habit of drawing smiley faces, there was almost a bit of Forrest Gump in Collins. But he was formidable on the hills, had represented New Zealand in orienteering, and wasn’t contemplating being beaten.
“I Shaun Collins agree to the following:” began a laminated contract he carried with him. “I have entered this race of my own free will. I paid for the entry fee, trained hard, made sacrifices (family/fun) in order to do the event.
“Given the above, I will not quit the event.” (There were exceptions: Injury, death, being timed out.)
On the reverse were details of sun and moon movements to help him keep track of time, and a definition of endurance: “The struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.”
There were other notes – ones his wife Madeleine and children Zara, Meg and Annie-Rose had snuck into his gear to encourage him on the course. And ones in his equipment at race headquarters, reminding him what to do at the end of each lap. “Smile… change socks…change shoes?... smile… new batteries for headlamp… red bull/coke… smile… lubricate…” and at the bottom a smiley face and, “Imagine a kiss from Mad.”
The couple have known each other since they were kids doing orienteering in Hamilton, been together 25 years, and celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary the day before the race. Collins was annoyed for letting himself be distracted by others, and making silly navigation mistakes on lap one, but was confident he could catch up the lost time. “He will completely go for it,” said Madeleine, as her husband picked up his pack and poles and headed back into trailless tussock gilded by a lowering sun. “He doesn’t give up.”
But in Saturday’s early hours, the wind rose, stirring the bush and chilling those still on the course. Headlamps flashed, shooting stars blazed far above, and volunteers sought warmth by putting up jacket hoods.
Just after 4am, a wavering light was spotted on the trail, growing and glowing brighter as somebody slowly returned to base: it was Collins, subdued and out of the race. He’d made it part-way around his second lap, struggled to find a checkpoint in the dark, realised he couldn’t make the cut-off time, and decided to pull out. As much as it went against every instinct, in the end it was a simple decision, he said, while sitting in the shelter of a van.
“He’ll be devastated,” Madeleine whispered. “But it’s not a challenge if you know you can do it, is it.”
Race leader Ian Evans held the best chance of beating the 5am deadline to complete his second lap and continue on. But at 4.52am, he ripped open his emergency phone and texted race organiser Leroy de Beer. “I lost my map and envelope between checkpoint eight and seven. I’m devastated. I’ve just been drifting between napping and walking the last three hours.”
When Evans arrived back at base, there was a thin margin between his overwhelming disappointment and tears. Just on dark the previous evening, he’d arrived at the midway checkpoint, feeling good.
“I thought, I’ll sit down, reward myself with some sour worms and just take a quick bearing down to the next checkpoint so I know where it is and…”
When he reached down for the pouch that held his map and other vital information, it was gone from the front of his shorts, dropped somewhere in the tussocks long ago, on one of the many occasions he’d tripped and tumbled headfirst downhill. “I backtracked for two hours but it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, it could have been anywhere.”
Evans was confident he could have completed laps two and three, and after that, who knows. Of course, his body could have fallen apart, his head might have played fatal games, but he was adamant he had a shot. “The thing is, I really wanted to see where my limit was, and I didn’t find that. It was just an admin error. And that’s the frustrating part, because there was a lot more to give.”
His dog, Poppy, sat on his foot and stared hopefully at the rice chips and kūmara hummus Evans wolfed down.
“Cracking course, though,” he said, brightening slightly. “I definitely think it’s doable. We’ll see what next year brings. Unfinished business now.”
By late Saturday morning, 36 hours after they had begun, only Alastair Shelton and the team of Matt Jeans and Tom Reynolds remained on their second lap. Jeans and Reynolds were eventually pulled from the course as the weather worsened. But Shelton, who’d had a three-hour nap in the tussocks overnight, found the power to make it up the final hill to the finish.
“Big day! Beautiful,” he exclaimed, slumping into a chair. He’d been going 39-and-a-half hours, much of it alone. That bit wasn’t a completely new experience for Shelton. Six years before, he’d spent two days lost in the Tararua Range after becoming disoriented, fearing for his life before being rescued.
But this was different. He’d been the last man standing, the only person to make two laps. Technically Shelton had failed – he’d only made it halfway and was outside the time limit – but right now, it felt like success. “I knew it would be really, really hard, but that was beyond even really, really, really hard. So I’m super-satisfied.”
As he stripped off wet gear, and examined his sunburn and waterlogged feet, Shelton’s phone trilled with 40 hours of queued good wishes and congratulatory texts. If this was failure, it was laced with sweetness.
“I think it’s possible for someone to complete it. You’d have to be a monster athlete, a super-good navigator, and mentally strong. You’d have to have all the pieces of the puzzle to do it. But someone will, I reckon.”
Later that afternoon, competitors gathered at the Garston pub, comparing stories and scars, a few hobbling on tender feet, many relying on adrenalin to stay awake, most making plans to return next year. Last to leave were Navy Seal Chadd Wright and a local farmer he shared his chewing tobacco with, then visited the next day. Like most, Wright had never confronted failure before, in competition or career, never ended a race so far from the finish line. And he was already wondering how he’d explain that to everybody back home, while remaining determined to come back for another attempt.
The chances of Wright ever beating The Revenant are as small as everyone else’s – it took 10 years before anybody completed the Barkley Marathons in the woods of Tennessee, and many consider The Revenant a harder race. But that isn’t a reason not to try.
As competitor Dave Viitakangas wrote the day after the race: “Failure is never giving it a go in the first place.”
This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.