Is New Zealand's new extreme endurance race The Revenant too extreme?

by Mike White / 27 December, 2018
View-down-into-Mataura-Valley-from-Roaring-Lion-TrailTravel

The Southland mountains where The Revenant race will take place in January 2019. Photo/North&South/Bauer Media

New Zealand's answer to the Barkley Marathons, The Revenant, is a new running race in Southland set to test the limits of athletic ability and human endurance.

How far is too far? How long can you keep going, on your own, in an unforgiving environment? Just where does endurance end and misery begin?

As the number of extreme running races around the world rises, a new event in New Zealand is raising questions about what the human body – and mind – can withstand. The Revenant ultra-adventure race in northern Southland begins on January 18. Competitors will run close to 200km and climb 16,000m, without any assistance – no GPS, no support crews, not even a watch. Just a map and compass. And they’ve only got 60 hours to complete the distance. The chances are, none will make it. It’s a fact Revenant organisers Scott Worthington and Leroy de Beer are candid about. “A true challenge is when failure is the most likely outcome,” their website proclaims.

Their race is styled on the infamous Barkley Marathons, a 160km event in the United States which has been successfully completed only 18 times, by 15 different runners, since it began in 1986.

Worthington admits that despite The Revenant having attracted top endurance athletes from New Zealand and overseas, “the high probability is you won’t even finish. Forget about time, you just won’t finish.”

Read more: Chafing the dream: What it takes to run the New York Marathon

barkley marathon

Here, the legs of Jim Nelson are cut and bleeding from the thorns of bushes throughout the Barkley Marathons course. Only 15 people have ever completed the run. Photo/Getty.

It’s a premise that is being questioned by Auckland running coach James Kuegler, who earlier this year wrote a post on his website disputing the wisdom of most of those entering.

“What I struggle with is why people feel the need to attempt races like this that they patently are unlikely to achieve. If you enjoy suffering so much just come by and I’ll buy you a 40oz of vodka and you can scull it in front of me. I would suggest that the physiological effects of this and an attempt to stay awake for 60 hours and traverse 190km with 16,000m of vertical ascent and descent would be surprisingly similar.”

Kuegler insisted he had nothing against the race or the organisers, but “I question our obsession with going longer and longer and longer.”

He still feels the same as he did when the race was announced, and has concerns the heat – or snow, the distance, the amount of climbing, the 60-hour time limit, sleep deprivation, and the need for exceptional navigation could be a recipe for disaster, or even death.

“If it was someone going into the bush on their own, and they said, I’m going to do x, y, and z, irrespective of an event, you’d tell them they were stupid.”

He believed the move to longer and harder races, was partly motivated by one-upmanship among race organisers, and meant inadequately prepared people might end up entering, and risked long-term burnout and injury.

“What I’m questioning is, what is the need, what is the motive to have an event that’s that tough and is potentially as unachievable as it is for 99% of the population?”

But Kuegler wished all Revenant competitors well. “And in some ways I want to be proven wrong, that there’s a bunch of people that go and achieve it and they have a great time and they can turn round and pull the middle finger at me and say, ‘well, you were wrong.’ And that’s great – but let’s at least be open enough to be having those discussions.”

Scott Worthington, a top adventure racer himself, insists they’ve carefully screened entrants and refused nearly 20 people. Those lining up were top athletes who were well aware of the scale of The Revenant’s challenge.

“Look, this is not for everybody. It’s not meant to be for everybody. But if you don’t have certain humans pushing the boundary, a lot of what we’ve got today just wouldn’t happen.

Southland.

“So my answer to James Kuegler is, ‘fine if you don’t want to do it, and it’s certainly not for the average person. But thank goodness we do have some people that want to give difficult challenges a crack.’”

Even if Revenant competitors accepted they might not finish the race, their challenge was how far they could get this year, Worthington said. Revenant entrant Tim Sutton has raced against Kuegler in the Coast to Coast event, and says everyone starting The Revenant knows how hard it will be, and their bodies will ultimately tell them whether it was too tough.

“I’d say it would be the hardest running event in the country, and one of the hardest ones in the world.

“I’ve always liked an endurance challenge and I think society, as it is now, has largely had adventure taken out of it, and I think people have got a bit soft towards adventure.”

Sutton, a Wellington furniture upholsterer and adventure runner, says he looks back to early explorers in New Zealand and gets inspiration from their incredible journeys in the wild.

“So it’s nothing new to want to test yourself. And we get to test ourselves with all this modern gear and food – I think we’ve probably got it easy compared to some of the stuff that’s already been done.”

Fellow Wellington entrant Jean Beaumont, who last year completed a 200 mile (322km) race in America, says running has evolved and the types of events people once considered almost impossible have become increasingly common.

“I don’t think you can stop people doing stuff if they want to do it. Some people like road marathons, but I don’t like that sort of stuff. I’d rather be in the bush. I don’t mind if it’s foul weather, blowing a gale – that’s more interesting to me. It takes all sorts.”

Beaumont has never failed to finish a race, but accepts she might not complete The Revenant.

“I’m thinking of it as a challenge and if I don’t finish, so be it, because that’s being realistic. But I’m quite mentally strong, so the only reason I won’t finish is if I completely stuff the navigation and am out of time or because I can’t walk, basically. I won’t be quitting just because I’m a bit tired or cold, that’s for sure.”

Auckland’s Shaun Collins believes it is possible to finish The Revenant within the time limit, and is determined to prove it in January. And in that respect he doesn’t agree that longer events are stretching human limits too far.

“I just think it’s a natural progression that we want to push ourselves.”

To that end, Collins, whose Lactic Turkey company organises running races, is planning a last-man-standing event in Auckland in May. Modelled on a race in the United States, competitors have to complete a 6.7km loop each hour. In this year’s American race, the winner managed 68 loops, 455km, over nearly three days. He broke the race record by more than 60kms.

And perhaps therein lies the answer to the question of how far is too far. We just don’t know – until we try, and then try again.

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