The Alterno Cougar Mummas: This team of averagely active, not quite active enough, totally bloody-minded, excruciatingly funny and doggedly persistent women have been a total pleasure to train and race with over the last nine months since we decided to push forward with this event.
As spirited women in your own right, if you have followed our journey these past few months you will possibly have identified with some of our highs and lows throughout our journey also. Our hope though is that your participation in the event was as enjoyable as ours regardless of your team placing.
As a team, we felt a keen responsibility to our sponsors the Alterno Foundation to provide you with some valuable insight into what it took us to achieve our goal. Hopefully entertaining you all along the way and even inspiring some to find the time to break away from their already busy regular day to day grind, to get out and find the inner spirit that we all know we have but somehow forgot about, or are yet to find.
Now that the race is complete and the experience so fantastic, I am compelled to break it down for you piece by piece so please BARE WITH ME!
Friday 31st March
It is way too late now to start worrying about if the team is physically, mentally or emotionally ready for this. I think we were, but as first timers, we were never really sure what the event organisers were planning to throw at us on the day.
At any rate, we are clued up a bit by some of the training days provided for us by our Coach Cubby aka certified cougar handler. We have navigated (marginally), hiked hills and mountains, biked MTB trails, practised SUP (a little). We have juggled, bribed, begged and just plain paid for time to get as much prep in as we could, and now that the race is tomorrow we will have to suck up (with a smile) whatever else is required of us.
We set off from home kitted up in our Alterno Cougar Mumma team t-shirts worn with pride and a good portion of tongue in cheek.
Stopping for refreshments and fuel along the way we received plenty of smiles as others saw our shirts giving the clear warning of Cougars on the prowl and the corresponding control mechanism of our dedicated cougar handler. Desired reaction …. CHECK!
Arriving in Taupo for the opening ceremony we were excited to see the goodies offered up in the team box. BIG THANKS to the partners and sponsors of the event JOB WELL DONE there, we felt LOVED unpacking our box of race goodness.
The team participated in an afternoon Yoga session, bought an event t-shirt each, tried the yummy Whai Ora smoothies, (the dairy free, gluten free was my fav) and headed out for dinner armed with our kindly donated dinner vouchers, to carb up before retrieving our race maps at 7:00 pm.
Going through the race notes and maps before the briefing was totally valuable time. Not only did it give the team a chance to gain an appreciation for distance, time and discipline for each stage, but engage with other teams on their overall feeling for the day ahead.
As it turned out the race was heavily based on MTB time, and as cycling is our strongest discipline we felt a little more confident in coming in on or under 12 hours tomorrow.
Race director Neil addressed the medium course participants explaining safety rules, and corrections to race notes and maps. We realised here how important it is to listen and get this information correct, avoiding this portion of the event preparation could potentially be the difference between success or failure in our navigation strategy.
We headed back to the accommodation so the Nav’s could plan our routeing for tomorrow, triple check our packs for essentials, divide and pack food portions and check and set up the bikes ready for our early start.
Bed by 09:00 pm
Saturday 1 April 5:00AM – 10:00PM
Up at 5:00 AM, It’s not easy shoving down breakfast at 5:30 in the morning. I for one, struggle to eat on nerves but knowing it had to be done because the only food available will be what we carry. So, we must get that breakfast down and a cup of tea to kick start the system. One final gear check and in the car by 6:15.
Driving to the start line the team is in good spirits. Outside is the early morning darkness, except this morning is also covered in a thick blanket of fog a sign of Autumn taking hold. We wondered if the forecast for fine weather was wrong and the skies would provide us with rain today.
Arriving at the event start we could see the red lights of cars parking to drop teams off, and feel the excited apprehension of the day ahead. Most vividly though we could hear the excited twitter of ladies gearing up for an adventure with their buddies. Bikes are being unloaded from cars and women dressed in lycra with their helmets, packs and number bibs on are dotted all over the field. Lamps on both bikes and helmets are shining through the fog and each face you peer into is smiling ear to ear. FREEDOM IS IMMINENT!
The cougars are no different, we are keen to get moving and put our bodies to the test, but first, we need to line up at the loos for a nervous wee.
As we line up at the starting arch the MC is talking to us about event safety and counting down the time. Music is playing and the atmosphere is truly surreal. Itching to get on and ride, we set off up the farm airstrip bang on 7:00 AM. So far, this event is proving to be a well-oiled machine.
Teams sprint off ahead, you know by the way they move some have done this before. For ACM we are conscious of losing each other in the fog, so as we ride we periodically call out “Cougars ON” and get a resounding “ON” from each member. There is a distinct speed difference between our team members and we are cautious not to exceed the 60-metre distance rule, so slow down to accommodate.
Captain Cougar is navigating with the map on her bike, and communicates the directions, Cougar Huntress has the transponder to collect the CP’s and communicates the CP clues, Crazy Cougar is setting the pace between each CP, and is on lookout for clue landmarks, and spotting CPs, Wildcat Cougar will monitor team wellbeing with water and food intake and the distribution of meds as members start to feel niggly injuries or existing pressure points throughout the day. We feel like we are making good time as dawn well and truly arrives.
Still foggy, the ground becomes noticeably rougher with ruts making it harder to ride, one or two ladies from other teams take a tumble from their bikes, but are unhurt. The field is slowly dispersing and we notice that ACM are not the fastest on course today, but then our game was not about being competitive but to complete comfortably and so far, we are feeling quite comfortable with all CP’s accurately collected until we come across the first map inconsistency and miss the trail off the road. Coach Cubby had warned us that not all maps are accurate in events like this so is not so surprising. To be fair we aren’t too far off point, and double back, dump our bikes and run up-hill to collect the CP up in the viewing platform looking over the river and dam.
On any other day, you would stop and take in the view and perhaps a few pictures, but today there are ladies in Spirited Women bibs and bicycles everywhere, running, walking, biking laughing, chattering, singing. All smiling, all so polite, they help the lost and point the way. We notice the participants in this event are the most genuine kind nurturing souls one could find. We are women and it is in our nature to be this way, and I think something unique and to be celebrated and part of the essence of this event.
Close to the first transition station now as we cross the head of the dam. Volunteers are guiding teams across the road and monitoring traffic, although at 8:30 in the morning there is very little. We notice here also this is one of the popular spectator points and we see an amazing array of dads and small kiddies, clapping and cheering on participants.
Another essential part of making this happen for us is the support of friends and family and whilst not all of them could be there to cheer us on, we acknowledge them, feel the love from them and are grateful for them.
Transition 1 – Stage 2
Two hours (give or take) into the race we make it to the first transition. I guess the point of transition is to efficiently move from one activity to another, whilst paying attention to team needs such food, and water intake and also toileting. This was our opportunity here as we stacked our bikes, offloaded our packs, secured a stack of paddle boards and diligently waited in line to use the port-a-potty. SUP not being our most practised discipline we honestly had really no idea how long we were going to be out there, and I for one was not going to be stuck needing the loo (along with other feminine necessities) having already consumed a good litre or water.
We finally waded into the water toting our boards and were briefed by a lovely lady in pink advising us on using the current down to get to the first CPs and the far side of the river current on the way back to collect the last CPs.
So off we went, Huntress and WildCat were comfortable with their combination of balance speed on the SUP and so were in standing position, however, Captain and Crazy being typical cats wanted to avoid watery wobbles as much as possible and so opted for a seemly steadier stance on their knees. It worked well enough and the team made a solid effort, which to be fair felt and looked like a cruise on the river.
The water was crystal and very inviting. Crazy who admitted having very little control over the board accidently bumped into both Huntress and WildCat upsetting their balance marginally, don’t worry they recovered without getting their paws wet but the looks on their faces.. so funny!
We collected the final CP for the SUP leg and headed back to shore feeling accomplished, but wait there’s more. As WildCat paddled furiously to gather speed she managed to get her board fins tangled up in some weed. Her board stopped dead in the water which put her off balance enough to gently if not gracefully slide into the water grappling with the board as she went. “who bumped me” she yelled. For the rest of us it was one of those priceless moments you wish had been captured on camera, but at the same time we felt pity at the thought of our teammate having to continue the race wet, and relief that our boards were very clearly too far away to have bumped her, for fear of WildCat wrath.
Dry off, eat, drink, another wee stop (yes), and back on the bikes for stage 2. After a small amount of confusion and mucking around as to which direction we should be heading in as we see other teams heading off in a direction that is opposite to others, but Captain Nav makes the call and we are off towards Transition 2.
Although wet through WildCat is in good spirits and the team engage in some interesting conversation. Crazy has been updating the team on her internal jukebox and its random song choices along the way. (An internal jukebox is that involuntary song that pops into one’s head and plays over and over, well for Crazy Cougar she noticed at least 6-7 different songs over the duration of the day, which firmly secured her diagnosis as crazy according to the team medic)
We notice the CP’s are becoming a little harder to find. It seems the organisers have considered fully how to introduce teams to the routine of deciphering the map, and clues and settling them into the routine of what they are looking for. ‘Behind Broom Bush’ was the next clue, which was relatively well hidden, especially if you were unaware of what a Broom Bush looked like. At least one of us did and we proceeded to climb up a steep track back onto farmland to find the Walk On Trek portion of the race.
Transition 2 – Stage 3
The team stacked their bikes amongst hundreds of others in prep for the trekking leg, consult the map and set off in the direction of the water station and porta-potty trailer about 500 metres away. Yep another wee stop is required and a few meds to be given out by our team medic, and onward up the track to collect the next CP. The fog has lifted somewhat since early this morning, allowing for some stunning views of the surrounding farmland from our elevated route.
Other teams are still passing us, but as a team, ACM are still spritely and we put on a reasonable pace up the hills. Working together to read the map, clamber through fence lines and search for CP’s placed at the base of large trees, at the head of gullies, next to water tanks and communication stations. The steep sheep country was like a training session laid out by coach cubby a few weeks earlier and it was at this point that the team were thankful for the time they put into hill training both on the bikes and on foot.
WildCat declared that she was cold from her dip in the river earlier and we stopped to help her change into a warmer shirt. Continuing we felt the heat of the sun peaking through the clouds as the last of the fog burnt off. We collected the final CP of the stage and headed back to transition to collect the bikes.
Off we went to cross the river heading towards the Craters of the Moon MTB Park in stage four, stopping at the download point located underneath the expressway bypass. We muddled around on the track at the side of the river looking for the next CP finding another inconsistency in the map but managed to head in the only direction left to us up the hill in the bush and popping out onto a road. On seeing more volunteer road marshals’ and other teams milling around, some taking a break and consulting their maps and others heading off into the bush following and entrance track into the MTB park we knew we were in the right place.
Popping our bikes over the kerb of the road, we stopped to decipher the next heading on our chosen route. Captain Nav and Huntress as support Nav had decided to take a different routing from other teams, and head up the road into the MTB park in an effort not to get lost in the twisting turning tracks within, meaning we would enter the MTB park from the carpark side and begin our CP search from a different direction.
In hindsight at this point, we should have consulted the park map and correlate our position with CP’s and track names. But keen to get cracking we headed off in the direction determined by the race map and followed the Tourist Trap track up and towards the treeline.
We are feeling a little lost looking for our next CP. MTB parks are notorious for winding tracks and the likelihood of taking the wrong one heading in the wrong direction is relatively high. With some more kind help from another team we got back on course collected as required and stopped at the loos for yet another wee break. So far, we have consumed between 3-4 litres of water each snacked on sweets, energy bars, eaten our ham and cheese roll and sucked on our sponsored Pro4mance energy gels (aka grease lighting) over an approximate 5-6 hour period.
Captain and Crazy headed over to the park map determined not to get lost in the second portion of the MTB park leg, and to confirm the correct trail names and direction of attack. Of course, we are all beginning to feel fatigued and communication had clearly taken a downturn, as WildCat and Huntress had no idea their teammates were consulting the park map and rode off up the road spluttering about 60-metre distance and where the hell were those two cougars.
As a side note and general learning from this event to the next, always communicate your intentions with your team even if you are moving a mere 10 meters away. Unnecessary time wastage and subsequent aggravation can be avoided.
Reunited after about 5 minutes the team discussed the previous night’s route choice and after finding the trail of choice was a horse only trail opted for the option as intended by event organisers and headed up the ‘Incline’ trail to find the next CP on route to the connection point then onto ‘Walters Wiggle’ trail back towards the carpark.
Wow, what a fun MTB park this is. These trails we think were Grade 2-3 easy to intermediate. We sure did enjoy the rollercoaster ride they provided. A family trip heading down this way is most definitely in order sometime in the near future.
Despite the few frustrations, we completed this leg with big smiles on our faces. You see this is what I love about this sport, it is so much fun you just can’t stay pissed off for long, and the best thing is doing it with people who you enjoy being with, so you can all laugh with each other. Always the best medicine!
The map took us across the road again and towards and across the Huka Falls bridge collecting more CPs on the way. Up the bush line heading back towards Taupo. This stage is a relatively long one which took in some amazing scenery through bush and farmland and eventually to our first Mystery Activity, where we checked into transition 3.
Transition 3 – Mystery Activity 1
The sun was hot and high by now and we were happy to ride under the shade of some cooling pine trees. We came to the transition 3 point, stacked our bikes again and walked along the fence line up to the clay bird shooting range.
An opportunity to take a small break, refill our water bladders (adding a little go-go juice electrolyte powder from Pro4mance) have something to eat and show off our prowess with a rifle. Well, Captain Cougar did anyway hitting the only target for our team and gaining a one minute advantage off our overall time. “go CAP”.
Observing other teams here was interesting too, many had been on the go for 6-7-8 hours plus, but you know every single lady had a beaming smile. Cheers for those who hit the target and a pat on the back for those who didn’t. Clearly, the fun continues even if you have just pulled off a full and active work day without a break and the prospect of another 4 -5 hours plus until completion.
The team at the Clay Bird shooting club were awesome, so patient with us. It was a pity there was no more time to practice more shots, but we really had to get moving. So fuelled up and ready to get back on the bike we check out of transition 3 and headed up the hill.
We are almost on the home stretch, with the Rogaine leg, and second Mystery Activity to get out of the way we headed off to Transition 4. To be fair, as the narrator of this story, it was heading into mid-afternoon now, and I was feeling pretty fatigued. Much of this leg is a blur, in fact so much so I really have no detail for you at all, just accept that we collected our CP’s throughout the leg and arrived at Transition 4 with a tired view of the ending in sight.
Transition 4 – ROGAINE and Mystery Activity 2
Like the others, this transition area was chocka with bicycles and women heading up the hill on foot to begin the Rogaine. Captain and Huntress had decided the night before to find the Mystery Activity first so after taking some time to get our bearings in the park we headed off up the left-hand side of the park and collected CP G along the way, crossed the road into the AC Baths complex for our rock climbing challenge.
There was quite a line waiting to complete the activity and we wasted a good 20 minutes at the tail end waiting for our turn. Another opportunity for a wee break, and a sit down to recover and refuel. We meet teams tackling the long and short courses too, all women who are strong and confident with the upper body strength to hold onto small finger grips and heave themselves along the wall and if not are willing to give it a go. The rules were, teams must attempt or face an 8-minute time penalty. Each member who made it across the wall without touching the ground took time off their teams overall time of race completion. Huntress succeeded on behalf of the cougars, Crazy got half way but didn’t make the full-length neither did Captain or WildCat.
So, armed with an additional minute, a banana each and rejuvenated at the prospect of the final leg we set out to navigate the Rogaine, and collected the next two CP’s with relative ease, then promptly took the wrong track down along the riverfront. Expecting to pop back up along the ridgeline where the next two clues were pointing us we travelled for some distance before this happened. Again, hindsight would have told us to stay high, but we followed our nose instead. We bumped into another lost team heading in the opposite direction and eventually exited the bush at the farther end of the park.
Now with a better bearing, we zig-zagged our way through the park to collect the final CP’s in the Rogaine stage and headed back to transition to collect our bikes for the final stage.
The sun was telling us it was now quite late in the afternoon, around 5:00 – 5:30 – 6:00 even, getting close to the 12-hour mark and we wanted to get it done under.
That final burst of energy was right there as we cycled along the roadside, popped back down to the river beside the bungee anchor, three more checkpoints to go. The discussion was on next year’s event (already yes, we are keen!) Down to the boat jetty at speed to a beach for the final CP, and back up along Lake Taupo waterfront to the finish line.
The journey is DONE we are greeted by smiling event crew blasting celebration music the MC rattling off team and member names as they cross the finish line and check in for the final time.
A well-deserved glass, ‘no hold that’ bottle of bubbles and sit down.
Preliminary time of 11hours 28 minutes. We made our target so are stoked with that, but now we have to beat it next year.