The Revenant ultra adventure race was launched last year with the tagline, “A true challenge is when failure is the most likely outcome.” The race required competitors to run 200km and climb 16,000m, navigating across rugged Southland mountains with only a compass, all within 60 hours. Failure was the inevitable outcome, with nobody even completing half the course in the required time. Mike White returned to this year’s event to see if anybody could conquer New Zealand’s toughest race.
“Who’s that with them?” an onlooker asked, as the trio moved swiftly away.
“That’s Louis,” said a woman behind them. “Louis Schindler.”
The woman was Schindler’s partner, Fiona Talley. But virtually nobody else on the hillside had heard of Schindler, and they watched with some scepticism as he began pulling away from Watson and Evans up the slope.
Rumours about Schindler started circulating. That he was a former Italian commando. (Completely false. He did a compulsory year in the Austrian army growing up.) That, one time, when his feet were in so much pain after a race, he pulled out all his toenails with pliers. (Mostly true. He cut out seven of them with a vegetable knife. The other three had already fallen out – Schindler discovered them in his socks after the race.) That he’d used drones to map the route in preparation for the race. (Not true. He’d run parts of the course and studied topographical maps intently.)
Beyond the speculation, there was cynicism Schindler could keep up with the leaders. But as the race wore on over the next two days, the doubting dwindled, and admiration rose. Everyone could see Louis Schindler, 6’4” with size 15 shoes, a former Michelin-star restaurant chef and now Nelson horse breeder, was a formidable athlete - and stood a real chance of being the first person to beat The Revenant.
But this year seemed different from the start. Many competitors were returning for their second attempt, fitter, smarter, and with vital course knowledge now stashed away. Evans and Watson were determined not to share that advantage, and planned to distance themselves from everyone else. So as race organiser Scott Worthington set everyone off at 6am, the pair hurtled down the first hillside and into the dawn at frightening speed. Only Schindler could keep up, and the three of them soon fell into step.
Late on the first of the race’s four 50km laps, Evans began to drop back, and Watson and Schindler, who’d never met before, began a partnership that would prove as vital as it was fortuitous.
By the end of lap two, just over 24 hours into the race, they had a lead of an hour over Shaun “The Beast” Collins, a bearded long-distance legend from Auckland, who’d overtaken Evans during the night.
Supporters started getting their hopes up that someone might actually finish four laps this year. But Worthington, who designed the race, quickly reinstated reality: “What you have to remember is, they’re only halfway.” He was right – nobody thinks the second 100km is easier than the first.
Temperatures on day one had hit 33 degrees, with many competitors suffering dehydration, cramps and sunburn. The heat returned on day two, with scant breeze to quiver the tussocks or cool the runners, and only thin strips of cloud teasing at protection. The only respite was when runners plunged into the forest, where bush lawyer plants snatched at them and ripped their skin.
Gradually, the field of 25 starters began to shrink. Nelson doctor Katie Wright (who’d had to use her suturing skills to repair her shoes just before the start), one of the world’s leading endurance athletes, succumbed to the sun’s effects after one-and-a-half laps. So did tobacco-chewing former US Navy Seal Chadd Wright, who has quickly become a race favourite with his long hair, languid Georgia accent, and inspirational attitude. (“I don’t get nervous. I just say to myself, ‘Nobody’s shooting at me, nobody’s trying to kill me – it can’t be that bad then, can it.’”)
Wellington’s Alastair Shelton, who got further than anyone else last year, called it quits after two laps, another to suffer from the heat. Australian soldier Taylor Speedy’s knee blew out. His teammate, Australian Navy Seasprite helicopter pilot Sam Judd, carried on till a feed of sushi left him with stomach cramps and no option but to quit. New Zealand soldiers Bob Hunn and Shane Tebbutt made one lap in good time, but with their feet feeling like they were treading on glass with each step, they too pulled out.
After 36 hours, only five runners remained. Watson, a Wellington energy analyst, and Schindler were nearing the end of their third lap, with Collins several kilometres behind. Evans was struggling, with everything hurting as he eyed the 45 hour limit for completing three laps. “I’m giving it my all,” he said, as he ground up another hill, “and it’s going to be down to the wire.” As much as his body wanted to rest, he couldn’t afford to sleep if he was going to beat the cut-off.
Wellington air traffic controller Jean Beaumont was 90 minutes further back, but made the decision to pull out shortly before midnight after 30 minutes sitting at a lonely checkpoint, debating what to do. She hated the fact the race had beaten her again, but was realistic enough to know she couldn’t make the 3am third lap deadline.
Watson and Schindler had started on their final lap as the evening sky turned pink over the Mataura Valley. Three hours later, just after midnight, Collins completed his third lap, changed his shoes, stuffed some spinach in his mouth, and drained a Red Bull. He’d only had five minutes’ sleep since the race began 42 hours before, and had been suffering frequent hallucinations. He saw rocks painted with remarkable murals, and grass clumps that seemed to be insects arranged into intricate artworks. Deep in the Nokomai River, he saw a black and white cow towing a caravan. But he was always lucid enough to realise, eventually, that these phantasms were just the product of sleep-deprivation, and carried on running.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Collins called out as he arranged his gear and headed back into the night, moths homing in on his headlamp. “Thanks for coming out everybody!”
Races like this are harsh, and fate is cruel: Evans’ 2020 experience was, again, one of miserable ill-fortune. Looking good to finish his third lap inside the 45 hour time limit, Evans had just one last checkpoint to reach. He’d found it before – but that had been in daylight. In the dark, he couldn’t get his bearings, couldn’t find the right spur to drop down – couldn’t work out what he was doing wrong. Eventually, time ran out, and Evans knew his race was over. Just after 3am, he took the long and devastating walk back to race headquarters, where he tapped The Revenant whisky bottle, signalling he was done.
So close. Again. The border between acceptance and tears was brittle. Consolation from those around was appreciated, but couldn’t comfort him at that moment.
“The spirit of this event is built around people like you,” Scott Worthington told him. “You’re the reason we do it.”
“Thank you,” Evans replied, his voice a whisper. “I appreciate it.”
Tom O’Brien, across whose property the race is held, told Evans how much support he had during the event, and how many people wanted him to succeed this year.
“That makes it even harder,” said Evans, distraught, exhausted, bereft.
The Revenant’s third day was as airless as those that preceded it. The grasslands baked, rock tors shimmered, and dust stirred by passing vehicles struggled to reach the road’s verge. For the three remaining runners, now having been going more than 50 hours, this was only one adversity to overcome.
Their feet were in agony. Their legs hammered. Watson had grabbed an hour’s sleep on the trail, Collins got five minutes, but Schindler had nothing. Spaniard grass stabbed them at any opportunity, and sunburn and chafing started to scream.
But they were almost there, they told themselves, almost at the point of allowing themselves to imagine crossing the finish. This last sunrise had been magnificent too, the view distracting them briefly from how their bodies felt.
But as Schindler and Watson emerged from the forest of the Nokomai Valley and approached the penultimate checkpoint, adrenaline started augmenting every step, and bore them down the last few kilometres along the Nevis Rd to the end. Watson raised clenched fists in sheer joy, then, just before the finish, they paused, hugged, and carried on into the arms of well-wishers and a haka from fellow competitors.
“Anyone know how to spell grit?” Schindler asked the crowd as the applause subsided. “A-N-G-U-S,” he answered, pointing to the crucial relationship the pair had developed on course. “When one of us slipped, the other one was there to catch them,” added Watson.
It was 55-and-a-half hours since they set off, and together they’d seen three sunrises and two sunsets while barely stopping. “It’s a lot of steps,” said Watson’s father, Brett, thoughtfully.
Brett had been there supporting his son throughout the race, getting little sleep, anxiously awaiting updates, calculating Angus’s progress, pace, and the time that remained.
A property valuer from Utiku near Taihape, Brett came stocked with Christmas cake, shortbread and delicious jam biscuits he called “thumb things”, all baked by Angus’s 86-year-old grandmother, Ria. When Angus reached the finish, Ria sent him a message: “Knocked the bugger off!”
Just under two hours later, Shaun Collins came into sight, managed a celebratory leap in the air, and trotted to the finish area on tender feet to face a haka.
In many ways, Collins’ success in beating The Revenant’s challenge was the most emotional. Last year, he’d prepared assiduously for the race and arrived at its start as a favourite. But he was forced to pull out after one-and-a-half laps, disgruntled with how hard it was to find some of the checkpoints, disappointed with his own performance.
To complete all four laps in under 60 hours this time was phenomenal. Given he’d had six months off training last year due to a torn Achilles tendon made it extraordinary. And he ran virtually the whole race on his own, with all the opportunities that allows for the mind to tell you to give up when the body is in pain. But he was comfortable being alone, happy to enjoy the incredible scenery around Welcome Rock and the Roaring Lion trail by himself.
“It was so nice to be up there,” he told everyone as he downed the shot of Revenant whisky reserved for finishers. “But I’ve seen enough of it now, though.”
Angus Watson sipped on a beer and ate his way through a burger swimming in calories. Last year, he’d been leading the field when he made a rash burst up a wicked ridge to put some distance over the other runners. He blew up, crashed, and had to retire after just one day and one-and-a-bit laps. That had rankled, and eaten at him all year. Finishing this year was revenge, redemption, and reward for a more calculated approach.
When his father took off Angus’s shoes, there was a cry of pain, and evidence of what 200km on unforgiving terrain does to feet. Just for a moment, the hurt of completing The Revenant overwhelmed the elation of the achievement. Before long, he’d been helped to his father’s campervan, drifting off to sleep cocooned in a sleeping bag.
Scott Worthington, the man who created The Revenant, was happy it had finally been conquered, but realistic that this was probably an extraordinary year.
“You don’t get a Louis Schindler and an Angus and a Shaun all come along every year. All the stars have to align, and even in perfect conditions, it’s a tough ask.”
Despite the heat, this year’s conditions had been excellent, with no squalls or high country storms, virtually no fog, and a race start time (it varies each year) that helped competitors complete their first lap in daylight. But even with that, Worthington is clear only a few will ever make it, as with the famous Barkley Marathons in North America that The Revenant is styled on.
“You have to be a special character to finish. And we might not see a special character back for a while.”
Schindler, who came to New Zealand in 1999 from Austria to help set up Hans Herzog’s fine dining restaurant in Marlborough, had dabbled with running in the past. But in the 10 years until 2017, he’d done virtually nothing, as he moved to a rural Nelson property to breed horses and produce a range of equine nutrition supplements.
His first ultra running race was just a year ago – the one where he lost all his toenails. After that, he ran a 101km race in Switzerland near The Eiger, and then began looking for another challenge. That’s when he came across stories about The Revenant.
“When I saw the faces of last year’s athletes coming back, and how destroyed they were, and how humbled, I thought, ‘Oh my god, I think I want to experience that.’”
So he sent Worthington an email, even though entries had closed. Half an hour later, Worthington phoned him and said he was in. “And that was it – I was committed.”
So he trained hard. And he did his homework on the course. And he analysed all the data and variables to the point he concluded he had a 10-18 percent chance of success, given the factors he couldn’t control, like weather, and given everyone failed so badly last year.
He was confident in his navigation, having done orienteering in the army and spending years hunting in New Zealand’s bush – but this was something different, 200km over two-and-a-half days.
In the end, perhaps his biggest advantage was teaming up with Watson.
“I knew immediately, he is comfortable with suffering, and his attitude was to push,” Schindler said. “It was clear we would both give 200 percent regardless of how much pain there was – we never moaned, but we did wince involuntarily sometimes. There was a lot of mutual respect that was unspoken.”
During the race, Schindler rarely smiled, barely interacting with those encouraging him, leading to an impression he was irritable or ill-at-ease with attention. But post-event he was a different person.
“When I run, I’m in the zone,” Schindler explained. “I don’t smile. You’re in pain but you don’t want to give the pain any value or momentum. Angus and I were so emotional: he couldn’t look at his Dad’s eyes, and I couldn’t look at Fiona’s eyes – I would have just cried. Because you ride on the verge of falling over and losing it into disaster and this is a very raw and vulnerable place.”
Several hours after the finish, Schindler eased himself into a warm bath, and celebrated his achievement with a can of cold spaghetti and a beer. Then he taped up his blistered feet and hobbled down to the Garston pub to join the celebrations with everyone else.
In the following days, he allowed himself to eat anything he liked, indulging a body that had been strictly monitored and rationed for months. But before long he felt uncomfortable, restless, ready to move on.
So, exactly a week after he and Watson and Collins became the first people to achieve The Revenant, Louis Schindler squeezed his still-tender feet into shoes, opened the door, and went for a run.