GODZone is a 500km, 6 day race through New Zealand's South Island (the home of adventure racing) and has a fearsome reputation in the Adventure Racing world series.
As the latest addition to Team Ellis Brigham Adventure Race Team, Kevin Stephens's main focus for the 2016 season was the 8-day Cape Wrath Ultra race in Scotland. So when he was offered the chance to race one of the world's toughest courses as a final part of his preparation, it was an easy decision to make...
"It was pretty hectic getting organised for a trip to the other side of the world but eventually I met up with my team-mates Gary, Ben and Sabs who were racing as Endurancelife. I'd raced with them before so knew we'd be a well matched team.
There's a big adventure racing scene in New Zealand and interest in the 2016 race (known as 'Chapter 5') was at an all-time high due to former All-Blacks Rugby World Cup-winning captain Richie McCaw taking part in his first competition. The national TV coverage brought out crowds at the start on Kaiteriteri Beach in Abel Tasman National Park for stage one - 30km of coasteering and kayaking.
I'm not a strong swimmer so wasn't looking forward to the swim out to the checkpoint and back, but my choice to wear a BA meant I could store the tracker easily. We then followed the coast round the headland to the next bay where all the kayaks were laid out.
We set out in the kayaks towards Rabbit Island. We had a couple of issues with the rudder which lost us some time and our paddling wasn't as strong as the local teams so already we were well down the leader board. There were some large but gently rolling waves which turned to large surf on the approach to the island and many teams capsized, but we managed a fun fast surf onto the beach.
The second stage started with a MTB orienteering course round Rabbit Island, followed by a 60km ride. The navigation through the forest trails of the Barnicoat Range caused most teams some trouble which helped improve our position, and the support from the locals as we made our way to the Silvan forest was unlike any I'd experienced in any race before.
Our strong progress continued at the start of the 52km stage three - a trek through the Red Hills - and we passed a few more teams on the climb over Ben Nevis. It was at this point that concentration was lost and despite seeing the lights of 5 teams in front we decided to take a different route. With the darkness and mist we soon became disorientated. Luckily we came across team YogaSlackers and after a brief chat we were on our way again. It was daylight now but conditions were poor with limited visibility and loose rocks underfoot. We lost a lot of time and energy looking for the next checkpoint and darkness fell again making it difficult to find a route down from the ridge. We decided to sleep here and continued in the morning to complete the stage. It had been a hard stage with too many mistakes so cost us about 20 places.
Stage three was a 47m MTB ride with a brief stop for a foot orienteer. After a sleep in transition, we paddled on Lake Rotora under the stars before heading out on a 30km trek over Mole Tops for stage four. We took the longer route when ascending following the only paths marked on the map. The poor weather of the previous few days were behind us now and we enjoyed the spectacular views, lifting our spirits.
After the difficulties of stage three our focus was to complete the long course and push on to avoid any cut-offs. The stage 6 Mataki River canoe was an enjoyable section. There was a mix of grade II rapids with some challenging grade III+ thrown in. A dark zone was in place during this stage so we had to pull off the river to camp for the night. We found a perfect spot and set up a fire to eat around and dry our feet. The darkzone allowed us to catch up on our sleep and we set off at first light, fully refreshed, to complete the stage.
Stage seven was a short MTB stage to reach the next trek stage to Mt Owen. The sun was setting as we ascended Mt Owen - a film location for The Lord of the Rings! The views were stunning and as we approached the top in the dark we had to take care due to the large drops and holes all around us. We followed cairns to the top where a marshal was camped out.
After the descent we spent some searching for the route up to the Lookout range avoiding some cliffs. At the top of the range we were met with poor visibility and hurricane-force winds make the already hard to find route route down even less obvious. With just a few hours of night-time left we had a sleep in some bushes out of the wind. In the morning we bushwhacked through the trees to a river and on to the transition.
Stage nine was a 140m bike ride. The first half was an easy gradual descent and it felt good to be making fast progress. It was a nice bonus to eat the apples that were being offered by the local supporters along the route.
After the 800m climb up Takaka Hill there was an enjoyable section of singletrack; enjoyable until my handlebars clipped a bush and threw me off my bike! It was a relief that I escaped injury, but it was a wakeup call that the race wasn't over yet. On the run in to the final Kayak stage at Totaranui the wind had picked up and we realised that we wouldn't be allowed to kayak on the sea at night. We took the opportunity to grab some pizzas (which a restaurant gave us for free) and set up the tent at transition until we were allowed on the water.
As the sun rose the weather had calmed so we were given the all-clear to embark on the final 34km stage along the beautiful Abel Tasman National Park coastline. There were checkpoints on some amazing beaches along the route - the last one being the one we had started on. We crossed the finish line and were presented with a kiwi pie and beer to end our journey 5 days 19 hours after starting. We had finished in 32nd place out of 58 teams. Apart from stage three we had raced well and what we learnt from the issues we had in that stage will make us all better racers in the future."