Two kids under five. 50-hour-per-week desk job. Three-hour daily commute. Wife struggling with mommy-track blues. Taking on your first three-sport adventure race — out of the question, right? No, the solution.
Two kids under five. 50-hour-per-week desk job. Three-hour daily commute. Wife struggling with mommy-track blues. Taking on your first three-sport adventure race — out of the question, right? No, the solution.
By Brad Wieners
During the previous six months, I’ve been a slave to a man I’ve never met, a guy who delighted in calling me a douchebag and told me to “make friends with pain.” I’ve wrecked my left wrist on a kettlebell, puked foam at the local high school track, and frozen my balls off on the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania. I’ve eaten like a caveman, gone on the wagon, and known the special nausea of Creamsicle-flavored electrolyte drink on an empty stomach.
I’ve also shelled out more on a new bike than I’ve ever spent on a car and made my peace with road cycling (except for the dorky helmets, clumsy cleats, fey costumes, and cyclists themselves). I’ve kept three separate journals — one for workouts; one for gear and travel; one for every last thing I ingested. And all of it was so I could be where I am now: standing in line for the Porta-Potties at dawn on a desolate beach on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, hoping whoever’s in there hurries it up so I don’t shit myself.
Over the next two days, my wife, Mary, and I plan to run, bike, and kayak 151 miles across this spectacular and ridiculously fit country as a two-person relay team in the Speight’s Coast to Coast, the world’s original multisport adventure race. (The “adventure” part just refers to the fact that the course cuts through wilderness areas.) Although I’ve long had a taste for pushing the limits of fun and stamina, until recently, Mary’s idea of an endurance event was more along the lines of how long she could remain prone on the beach without burning. But today, in her stage of the race, she’s due to run 21 miles up through two alpine watersheds on an unmarked trail, ford thigh-deep streams, and scramble over vehicle-size boulders. Compared to Mary’s near-marathon in the mountains, my stage this morning is a sprint: a 1.6-mile dash to our bikes followed by 36 miles of cycling over rolling hills.
It could all come off beautifully — adventure racing as breakthrough couples therapy. Or it could turn out to be just the opposite — that I signed us up for ritual humiliation at the bottom of the world.
“It’s how we Kiwis do midlife crisis,” is how a New Zealander first described the Coast to Coast to me, and the competitors gathering on the beach bear this out. There’s a good mix of men and women; scores of hard-bodied young jocks, but plenty of ruddy-faced bucket-listers, too, a bit of extra gut pinched above the elastic of their cycling shorts.
On the walk to the start this morning, I met a South Island native, Andy, who looked to be about 50. Andy told me that on his only previous attempt, he’d been medevaced by helicopter from the mountains midrace for hypothermia. When I mention that this is Mary’s great fear, he cuts me off with typically brusque Kiwi optimism. “Oh, she’ll do fine, mate.”
With a few minutes left until the start, race director Robin Judkins clambers up a sea-wall boulder, bullhorn in one hand, air horn in the other. Judkins, 60, is a stout former house painter, recovered alcoholic, and genre novelist. Picture Dom DeLuise in a Santa beard and dressed like a Jimmy Buffett–lovin’ Parrothead. He staged the first Coast to Coast in 1983 and has run it every year since. At the pre-race briefing last night, he became startlingly severe as he implored competitors not to tackle him at the finish — he has suffered too many back injuries and other ailments to have jubilant finishers knocking him to the ground. Unfortunately for him, the rock he’s standing on now is directly between us and the official start, and Judkins shakes with laughter when a few racers yell, “Tackle him!”
After that, it grows quiet, and I hear the distinct detonation of a single wave behind us on the beach, the hiss-fizz of it washing up the sand, and then the pinched squeal of the air horn. It’s on.
March 2009: A Dumb Idea is Born
The first time I proposed that we enter the Coast to Coast, I hadn’t planned to bring it up at all. The boys were finally down for the night, we were sitting on the floor in our living room, on our third glasses of wine, and Mary and I were enjoying the kind of fully awake but relaxed conversation we rarely had anymore. For the 12 years before our older son was born, we’d lived largely month-to-month, one of us working, the other freelancing or back in grad school, rarely spending nights in, skipping town on short notice. Twelve years where we got very good at doing our own thing; and for most of that time, starting a family never even came up.
Now look at us: in the New York ’burbs, thrust into outmoded gender roles — commuter husband, homemaker wife — living someone else’s platonic ideal. And because I’d come around to wanting kids first, everything that was hard about our new life could seem, at times, my fault. Worst of all was a creeping sense that we’d had our heyday as a couple — that we existed for our boys now, not each other. It helped to talk about it, but that had begun to feel like the only thing we did together: talk and drink too much wine. We needed a challenge that wasn’t wiping little boys’ butts, something for us. And that’s when I remembered the Coast to Coast.
“Can we really do it?” Mary asked.
“Absolutely!” I bluffed.
“Let me see,” she said, grabbing a laptop. Mary trusts my instincts but knows to check my facts. She quickly found the Speight’s website and confirmed that novices can enter on a first-come, first-served basis (the field is capped at 800 entries) and that we could still make the deadline (November for “internationals”).
We checked out the course map. In addition to the 21-mile mountain run, the Coast to Coast includes 84 miles of cycling on paved, two-lane country roads and 42 miles of kayaking, nearly a third of which is Class II whitewater on the Waimakariri River and the main event of day two, which I quickly volunteered for. Mary noticed how in the two-day relay version of the event (some elite athletes do the whole course themselves in one day), most competitors camp out at the midway point in tents or camper vans.
“So after you basically run a marathon on rocks, you have to sleep on the ground?”
“After that, you won’t even notice what you’re sleeping on,” I said. She gave me a look. “Maybe I can find us an inn?”
Mary had good reason to be wary. On those occasions when I’d tried to convert her to my fringe ideas of a good time, I’d often blown it, marching her up 3,000 feet of switchbacks, for example, on her very first overnight backpacking trip. “Travel with Brad,” as such episodes became known, and the phrase covers not only suffer-fests but anytime you’re out of your depth, rushing to make connections, or simply making it up as you go along. If you’re Mary, it means you’re freaking out because far too much has been left to chance.
The Coast to Coast was Travel with Brad to the nth degree. We had none of the particular skills or gear required to take it on. Mary had never completed more than a 10-K charity run (and then only once) and had never clipped into the pedals of a road bike. I had also never used clip-in pedals or raced on a road bike, and even though I row and have messed about in a sea kayak, I had never run rapids in one. But — and maybe this was the fourth glass of wine talking — this all struck me as the point: If we were really going to get this done, we’d have to become different people. The kind who don’t drink but who do get up superearly six or seven days a week to complete a serious workout before their kids wake up. The kind who actually have a plan.
“No matter what happens,” I enthused, “we’ll be in New Zealand.”
Sensing that I might plot a way to enter the race alone if she declined, Mary said, “There is no way you’re going back to New Zealand without me.”
I took that as a yes.
February 12: The Race’s First Leg
The first hour of the Coast to Coast brings a revelation: Cycling can be exhilarating. The initial run completed, we swarm over rolling hills, three dozen strong, our pedals whirring, our tires making a soft zipping sound as they lick the previous night’s rain from the asphalt. At the front of our cycle pack, a pair of self-appointed taskmasters bark orders and rotate lead riders to break the wind, while the rest of us jockey in and out of an improvised formation, three cyclists wide. There is no question that I am far faster in this aerodynamic vacuum than I could be on my own. And while I know the burn will come, I feel as if I could go on like this forever. At one point, I’m actually coasting uphill. Then, around a bend, we see the first pack of cyclists — the only large group ahead of us in the whole race — and a collective shot of adrenaline courses through our group: Let’s catch them!
In New Zealand the vibe in the pack is aggressive but not cutthroat, and that’s another eye-opener. During my six months of training, I’ve become familiar with several subspecies of athlete — from data-driven, can’t-shut-up-about-it triathletes to aggro, ascetic power lifters — but cyclists are among the worst. Because I’m tall (6-foot-7), I bit the bullet and went custom, shelling out five grand and change for a Seven Axiom S. The featherweight titanium goosed my speed but also got me hazed.
“Seven, huh?” asked one cyclist who came up from behind me on a county road in January. He wore clear wraparound Oakleys to keep from tearing up in the wind and Gore-Tex booties over his cleats to keep his toes warm (it was 40 degrees). We chatted briefly about how I liked the Seven (a lot) and the company’s pedigree (Merlin, the titanium mountain bike specialist). Then he mused, pointedly, “Yep. A lot of money on these roads. Makes you wonder if they’ll ever learn to ride.” They?
In the Coast to Coast, I get to believe I am finally learning to ride. It takes a mile or two, but we reel in the front-runners, and then, in a flurry of derailleur noise and chains slipping onto ring teeth, our swarm invades theirs and we’re a new pack, five dozen strong. When I pull into the transition minutes later (where I’ll transfer our race bib and anklet to Mary for her run), I’ve put us in the top 25 percent. Not bad. Less than 30 seconds after I arrive, Mary’s headed into the hills.
October 2009: Lost Ring, Damaged Pride
In the spring, Mary and I had begun our training slowly, adding a mile or two to our weekend runs, building a cardio base. Predictably, Mary went about it smarter, recruiting friends to run and cycle with, pacing herself on the advice of marathon guru Jeff Galloway. She found a trainer who cured her shin splints with pose running techniques and helped her build a weekly program. She started a blog where family and friends followed her progress and cheered her on. In contrast I tended to run and cycle alone and go until I hurt. And the one sport I regularly did with other guys — sculling — wasn’t an event in the Coast to Coast, as Mary kept reminding me.
Into the summer the challenge wasn’t the workouts themselves, but making time for them. We negotiated who got which mornings kid-free, fought when one person seemed to get more time to exercise than the other. For a while at least, the novelty of skirmishes over who got the “privilege” of getting up at 5 instead of 7 kept us amused. But the irony was that because we took turns watching the boys while the other worked out, we saw even less of each other than before. Locked in a post-workout “supersuit of pain,” Mary would be in bed before I arrived home most nights, close to, if not already, asleep. As I came into our bedroom, she’d act like we were long-lost lovers at a party, trying to place our last encounter: “Hey, I know you.… San Francisco, right?”
We muddled through, but the real test, I knew, would come when I spent entire Saturdays (usually Mary’s day “off”) on a river up in the Berkshires or Delaware Water Gap. I finally lined up some lessons in October and promptly wished I’d taken Mary’s advice and gotten started much earlier. In fact, on my very first kayak lesson, on about my sixth dunking, I lost my wedding band. I felt it go and wanted to reach for it, but I’d flipped at the mouth of a rapid funneling through some sizable rocks and wanted to surface before I got thrashed.
“Not the best symbolism,” Mary grimaced, when I told her about it, minutes in the door. She was disappointed but didn’t rage. And something had changed: She took over the role of championing the cause of the Coast to Coast. “You have to get back on the river as soon as you can,” she said.
And so I did. Though Alex Nicks, 37, an expat Brit and former world champion, was a superb instructor, I proved a stubborn, lousy pupil. “Do you know what you did wrong that time?” Nicks asked, as neutral as possible, after I flipped yet again on Connecticut’s Farmington River. I nodded yes but really had no clue. “When you got into trouble, you took your paddle out of the water.” He demonstrated my position, both arms up, paddle overhead. “Complete Gumby,” he smiled. “You have to keep contact with the water, or the river will do what it wants with you.”
I couldn’t afford for that to happen in New Zealand. Not on the Waimakariri River. The Waimak isn’t about intimidating hydraulics, but it’s tricky, with scores of dead-end braids, banked curves, shallow rock gardens that pinball you around a bit, and narrow, steep-walled gorges where a water exit is the only option. Nicks gamely coaxed me along as I swam and swore and tried not to ruin it for the others in his clinic. To get the hang of kayaking, I had to override my instincts; I wanted to counter-lean when I needed to lean in.
Eventually I grew less hesitant, more confident, and managed, now and then, to enjoy myself. Then, on the Saturday before Halloween, I had my worst day ever, as if I’d forgotten everything I’d learned. I truly scared myself once when I spent too long underwater, still held snug in the boat by my spray skirt. Almost as punishment I spent that evening at a neighbor’s otherwise-fine costume party, trying hard not to sulk. By that point most of our neighbors and prekindergarten-parent friends had heard about our New Zealand plans and wanted to hear about our progress. All I could think was that it was the worst idea I’d ever had.
Telling myself there must be a larger lesson in my futility (humility, for one), I was out the door early the next morning for another try. At a river near New Paltz, New York, Nicks moved me into a Bliss-Stick, a creek boat with more volume in the stern. As such, it’s a bit more forgiving, and the Bliss-Stick, along with the focus only a wicked hangover can bring, led me to a breakthrough of sorts — and proof that I could run a series of Class II rapids without a single “out-of-boat experience.”
February 12: The Race’s Second Leg
For the first four hours or so of Mary’s mountain run, I manage to relax, hydrate, and eat too many bananas. Sometime after hour five, however, I get anxious. It’s not that I doubt she can do it, but I’m still worried for her safety, and, if I’m honest, worried that if she breaks an ankle and is stuck out there alone for hours, she’ll end up resenting me more for dragging her into this mess than being housebound with the boys. When, after six hours and 23 minutes, she arrives, smiling, I’m more like a proud parent than a husband: That’s my wife! Though we’ve slipped in the standings, I could not care less, because she thanks me for “making her” do this.
We’re still buzzing over how well the first day has gone when Judkins, the race founder, calls a mandatory meeting. A storm is set to hit between midnight and 6 am, he tells us, bringing with it flash-flood rains and gale-force winds. For safety’s sake, the course we’ve been preparing for for months must change. The kayak leg on the Waimakariri has been canceled. Instead a different 12-mile paddle will be added toward the end of the race on a shallow canal of barely moving water called the Avon, which winds through Christchurch.
This blows. First, instead of getting to rest in the morning while I paddle for six hours, Mary will have to go first, starting out on her bike in the rain. Second, I’m going to be stuck in the wrong boat. When push came to shove, I had acquiesced to a local outfitter’s recommendation of a sea kayak with a rudder — deciding that, sight unseen, I preferred stability to speed in the Waimakariri Gorge. On the flat Avon, I’ll be like a cyclist on big, fat knobby tires racing on a velodrome track.
It takes me a few minutes to shake off the disappointment. Sure, there’s a touch of relief: The rapids had been the X factor, the dragon I still hadn’t faced, and now I was effectively off the hook. And yet, that’s what I’d come for. To finish the race now, I’ll have to propel myself 12 miles without any real float or moving current to speak of. That isn’t scary, just grueling. Everything for a reason, I guess, as this unexpected slog makes me glad for my introduction to CrossFit.
December 2009: Making Friends With Pain
I’d known this feeling before, but that was 20 years ago, in college, and I wasn’t sure I needed it in my life now: the visceral dread that today’s workout might finally be the one that breaks me.
After Thanksgiving, two things changed: Mary and I gave up wine (it was the only way to sustain our training), and I concluded I’d taken my preparation as far as I could on my own. It was too easy to cut a workout short if I wasn’t feeling it, or go too long on the next one to make up lost time and end up immobilized the following day. I needed structure.
On the recommendations of friends who swear by CrossFit, the core and strength conditioning program best known for its brutal efficiency (workouts last less than 45 minutes) and for popularizing kettlebells (and tractor tires) as exercise equipment, I connected with Brian MacKenzie. A triathlete and endurance coach in Orange County, California, Mac-Kenzie, as the head of Crossfitendurance.com, has made it his goal to integrate CrossFit into programs for marathoners, triathletes, rowers, and even skiers.
Not having worked with a virtual trainer before, I began a new, strange phase under MacKenzie’s supervision. By design, I never knew one day to the next what my workout would be, and some days I’d find myself having arguments in my head with a guy whom I’d never met face-to-face.
Each morning I’d find an e-mail from BMacK with the day’s regime, and although I found him more sympathetic when we spoke by phone, his e-mail persona was more drill sergeant. He addressed me by my last name, threw in some verbal abuse for good sport, and sent me words to live by that, out of context, might make him seem like a sadist.
“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind out in the great loneliness and can be reached only through suffering,” begins his favorite quote from a Caribou shaman. “Suffering and privation alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.”
For the CrossFit workouts themselves, MacKenzie sent me to see Keith Wittenstein, the founder of the Brooklyn Barbell Club. Opened in July 2009 in a former machine shop, the BBC has colorful murals on its walls and a powerful sound system that pumped AC/DC, the Beastie Boys, and Soundgarden back into my life. Whiteboards on the walls chart the PRs (personal records) of gym members under headings like Diane, Helen, Fran — benchmark workouts in CrossFit, like hurricanes, are each named after women. Less quaint, however, was that the BBC turned out not to have a shower yet. Instead, there was a can of Right Guard in the changing room with the instruction SHARE, BITCHES written on the cap with a Sharpie.
Ideally, CrossFit programs are three consecutive days on, one off. Because I couldn’t handle the double commute to work and the gym six days per week, I focused on lunch hours three days per week (returning to the office in a dried sweat). Wittenstein, a stickler for clean form, had me attempting any number of new exercises without injury, save for one time when I tweaked my own wrist and hand with a 16-kilo kettlebell.
MacKenzie and Wittenstein put me on the Paleo Diet. Popularized by a Colorado exercise physiologist, Loren Cordain, the Paleo Diet contends that athletes perform best (and people are healthier overall) when we eat like our Stone Age ancestors. The underlying theory is that humans consumed the right balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates as hunter-gatherers, and our diet as a species went to hell with the advent of agriculture. (True devotees of Paleo start to sound like conspiracy theorists, fingering grains as the root cause of the so-called “diseases of civilization” — diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer.)
In practice the Paleo diet is not complicated. Yes to lean meats, tons of fruits and veggies, nuts, and seeds. No to bread, potatoes, dairy, and beans. At first I felt depleted on the diet, but before long I was less sluggish and recovered from workouts faster. Still, though: no Mexican breakfast? No Italian primos? No cheese? What kind of life is that?
Hard to argue with the results, however. In January I posted my best time for the mile in 20 years, and by the time we boarded the plane to New Zealand, I’d shed a total of 16 pounds and dropped from a 36 waist to a 34. And there’s a final way CrossFit served me, too: During the most agonizing CrossFit circuits, you discover that your muscles have more to give after your mind wants to shut down — the very “place” of savage unpleasantness that I would reach about an hour or so into my three-hour paddle down the Avon in Christchurch.
February 13: The Storm Hits
“This sucks!” Mary says. We’re standing in a downpour, getting her bike from the pickup, finding her spot in the lineup. As predicted, the storm hit at 4AM, and the rain is heavy. Because of near-drought conditions for the past few weeks, the rainwater is standing in huge pools everywhere. And it’s not a summer rain. If we’re lucky it’s 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
I hate to leave Mary in the deluge, but the race officials need all the motor vehicles out of the way, so I wish her the best and make my way to Waddington, where Mary will tag me for the final push to Christchurch — a 33-mile cycle, 12-mile paddle, and 500-yard dash to the finish line. Or so I think. That’s going to change, too.
At Waddington a hundred mini-dramas play out as, one by one, other competitors show up to pass the figurative baton to their teammates. For a while this keeps me distracted as I wait for Mary to finish her ride. Unlike yesterday, however, when I only wanted her to finish in one piece, I’m impatient. Every minute that passes, we slip another place in the standings, and, even though we always agreed it wasn’t about winning, only finishing, I don’t want to end up last.
Though Judkins announced that it was 55 kilometers, or 33 miles, in his public address last night, Mary’s ride actually ends up being 52 miles. Also, the new route requires a strenuous climb. It takes her five and a half hours, and when she finally pulls in, it’s clear we’ve dropped to the bottom 25 percent. I stuff my competitive rage, but she can tell I’m aggravated and apologizes. I pedal off hungry to make up lost ground.
It’s breezy but sunny, and my cycle is over quickly — too quickly, it turns out, as my kayak is not ready. Finally one of our helpers, Leah, flags me down. I give her my bike, and, as fast as I can, I climb down a bank into the kayak and paddle off.
Sort of. Most of the Avon is barely deep enough for me to take a full paddle stroke without scraping bottom. In the first 15 minutes, I run aground at least five times, and have to knuckle it forward like some legless chimpanzee to get myself moving again.
Soon I’m dodging punting boats packed with tourists. They all seem delighted by the Avon, with its weeping willows and arch bridges. But I’ve already seen enough after an hour. Then, adding insult to injury, the single-day, elite athletes begin blasting by like I’m standing still — only meeting up with another guy in a sea kayak helps.
“I just decided to stop fighting it, and it takes as long as it takes,” he says. I smile, but I’m deeply jealous of his equanimity.
My back is screaming, so I have to stop paddling and extend my legs inside the boat every 100 or so strokes. Then, after just 10 strokes, I’m desperate to arch my back and stretch my legs again. I need a tactic to get myself through. For a while it’s humming and singing to myself. I try to think of something appropriate and end up with the coda Bono sings at the end of “One Tree Hill”: Oh, great ocean/Oh, great sea/Run to the ocean/Run to the sea. Soon that’s not doing it for me, and I’m reduced to counting strokes — up to 12, then starting over. I concentrate on what Alex Nicks always advised — fewer, better strokes — and negotiate with myself to stretch my legs and back only after I’ve completed another 144 better strokes.
This goes on for a long time. We turn many a corner without seeing our salvation. Then, finally, I see a yacht club, flags, and a crowd — the take-out. Climbing out of the kayak, I ask Mary, “Where to?” I’m expecting a 500-yard dash to the finish line, but no, a small craft advisory forced us ashore prematurely.
“You’ve got to get back on your bike and cycle another 10-K!” Mary says.
I do, then sprint the last few yards on Sumner Beach in my cycling cleats, and suddenly I’m across and Judkins is handing me a can of Speight’s beer, and I don’t tackle him, but I do throw an arm around his shoulder and shake his hand. Sadly Mary and the others couldn’t load the kayak and the rest of the kit fast enough to beat me to the finish, so I have to wait a few minutes for her to arrive before we can celebrate together.
Our finish time isn’t something to brag on: 17:10:20, good for 96th place out of 114, ahead of the oldest duo, but behind the best two high school girls. Still, more than 40 others didn’t finish, and in the battle of Mary and Brad vs. the course, we prevailed. Whenever Mary had felt like the training was too much, she’d stop short and ask, “How cool would it be to say we did this?” Now we can.
February 15: The Storm Passes
Two days after the race, we’re driving down to Queenstown to relax and catch our flight home when we miss a turnoff. At the wheel, I figure we’ll correct the error by taking a dirt road connector, but we soon come to a pebble-spitting stop on the edge of a ravine with a stream at the bottom.
Even before we missed our turn, Mary is a bundle of nerves in the passenger seat (because of all the driving on the opposite side of the road). The stream looks to be a couple of feet deep. She can tell what I’m thinking. “Please don’t,” she says. And then, when I drop it into gear, “Brad, no!”
Halfway through the stream, the water up to the floorboards, the tires spin into the sand below the river rocks, and we’re stuck. Cursing, I climb out the cab window. Initial attempts to free us (me lifting, her slowly applying the gas) only make it worse. I stomp off to try to find something to wedge beneath the wheels.
Mary has every right to be furious with me, but when I come back a few minutes later with a plank of concrete I find near a shed, she’s laughing and wants a snapshot to commemorate our predicament. She’s also figured out what will turn out to be our salvation — that we weren’t in four-wheel drive. In no time we’re out of the stream and on our way without any recriminations — something that would have been hard to imagine a year before.
“I can’t believe what a fucking idiot I am,” I say, reflecting on the episode.
“You are,” Mary agrees, and it is as affectionate as anything she’s ever said to me.
• Stay Close. The night before the race, stay at the Kapitea Ridge Lodge, a six-room B&B only five minutes from the start (from $195; kapitea.co.nz).
• Sunscreen is Essential on New Zealand’s south island, where the Kiwis are quick to point out that Antarctica’s ozone hole has stretched to them.
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Men’s Journal.