Thursday, 3 May 2007

An xtreme weekend

This past weekend was the annual Swazi Xtreme adventure race. Now in its 7th year, we saw
Salomon coming on board as a title sponsor. Being on the sideline this year, on the
organising team, I’ve come away from this year’s Salomon Swazi Xtreme with thoughts on
teams, responsibilities, our AR community, support crews, cable-tie ladders and the
pleasures of racing in Swaziland.

I got a call this afternoon from a Cape Town-based racer asking, “Lisa, what happened at
Swazi this weekend? I’m getting all kinds of different stories.”

This is what I replied.

The race started in rain on Saturday morning, for the first time in the event’s history. And
it was cold, really cold. The teams progressed through this first day with the expected
teams out front. John Collins’ Landrover Gear/USN in the lead and gaining more time with
every leg. They were being chased by Mark Collins’ Voels McCain team, Nicolas Mulder’s
Cyanosis team, Deon Bruss’ Cyclelab KZN team, and Graham Bird’s McCain team. Adventure Inc.
Red Ants, Kinetic USN and Sterling Light were also prominently in the picture.

With nightfall came the thickest fog I have ever experienced. We were driving in fog so
thick we could barely see 3-meters in front of our vehicle. Teams were out in this on
mountain bikes, headed for the Malolotja Nature Reserve. From here they would head out on
foot for the dreaded pothole and hydro sections, which I remembered from the 2005 Swazi
Xtreme; the one that started from Bulembu. Only a few teams (three, I think) made it this
far in 2005. From the start it was inevitable that teams would go through this section in
the dark.

At around 23h00 Bennie (from Salomon) and I drove Darron through to the hydro station so
that he could put the checkpoint in the correct place. He went out alone and returned to us
some 4-hours later. Unable to undo the attachment, he’d left his 20-meter rope at the first
section, which teams were required to abseil down (all teams had their own 20-meter ropes, which they were required to use0. Darron had to make a cable-tie ladder to
get down the next section*. It couldn’t have been long after the checkpoint was put in place
that John Collins and his team arrived, passing through the whole section without
* This is not recommended. Even foot-loops made from two cable-ties break when weight is
applied, which Darron discovered; luckily without injury.

It seems that Mark Collins’ team arrived only a short while later but instead of finding the
normal minimal water flow through this section they encountered a torrent. They found
Darron’s rope and thought it had been rigged for them to use. Mark abseiled down and within
half-a-meter was being pounded by the water flow. He was unable to ascend and so he motioned
for his team not to follow. Philip Swanepoel came down afterwards, joining Mark at the
bottom. After talking to Mark on Monday I understand that the team (and others who had
arrived by this time) hiked around this hydro section to the base and before leaving hung a
space blanket to warn other teams not to proceed (this had been mentioned by Darron in the
pre-race briefing as something to do on the river section should they encounter hippo.
Voel’s McCain team did the right thing to warn teams of the danger below). When they got to
the bottom, they found that Mark and Philip had not made their way through and so the team
realised that something was wrong.

And wrong it was. Apparently in the wee hours of morning some guy pushing buttons at the
hydroelectric station decided to divert the water from the dam, just upstream of this 2nd
pothole section, down this kloof. Normally the water goes through the hydroelectric plant or
conduit tunnels and to Darron’s knowledge, from prior conversations with the hydro
operators, water was never diverted down the kloof. This was not a normal situation. I saw
Craig Dutton’s striking photographs of this pounding waterfall, which thundered into the
pool below to make a white, turbulent base. The normal situation is a gentle “waterfall”
flowing into a calm, deep pool.

Darron was contacted and he got the hydrostation to divert the water from the kloof to the
conduit tunnels. It took something like 4.5-hours before the water subsided and Mark and
Philip, waiting for assistance, were able to pass though cold and uninjured.

Teams were halted and diverted through to their closest transition (T6 for most) and were
then instructed to be transported, by their support crew, to T7 on the shore of Maguga Dam.
While all of this was happening Landrover Gear USN had completed the paddle on Maguga Dam,
had passed through T7 and found themselves below the dam wall, putting their rafts into a
river that was bone-dry. The ordered dam release had not happened. It must have been by this
stage that the team was halted and they returned to T7.

I have a few points on this situation.

  1. Race organisers have control over many things but no control over
    1. the weather and;
    2. the unplanned and unanticipated actions of other people.

  2. When crisis strikes any race, the usual procedure is to:
    1. halt the race and;
    2. get all teams to one location where they can be accounted for and communicated to.

  3. Above this hydro section was a pothole section (deep potholes). I’ve never been through
    here so I speak from second-hand knowledge and not personal experience. The first pothole
    was a 12-meter drop from the top into a pool below. This is not something most people enjoy
    and so there was a walk-around option teams could take. They would incur a 30-minute penalty
    to bypass the whole pothole section. During the day I may have considered the jump but at
    night I would have definitely walked around. Remember too that as racers we trust race
    director’s when they declare an element “safe”. Yes, this was a safe jump and as this
    section was unaffected by the water flow it was in its “normal” state.

  4. There were 4 stages where Mark’s alarm bells rung.
    1. He wasn’t crazy about the first pothole jump in the dark, even though in Darron’s
      pre-race briefing he said that it was sufficiently deep. In the dark you can see obstacles,
      how far to jump out, the size of the pool or where to land.
    2. Mark didn’t think it was a good idea to abseil down the first part of the torrential
      hydro section and decided to abseil a short distance to check it out; he got trapped and
      pummelled by the water, unable to ascend again.
    3. There was an old, rickety ladder going down into the pothole (on the hydro section) and
      Mark assumed the rope Darron had left there was for them to use (not knowing that Darron had
      left it there because he couldn’t undo it alone – Darron had made no reference to rigged
      ropes on this section in the pre-race briefing or race instructions).
    4. Mark found that there were no hangers on the bolts on the next section and also found a
      rope rigged there, which had been left by John Collins. In Darron’s briefing he had warned
      teams against using any ropes, carabiners, slings or any other equipment they might find
      down there because they had no way of knowing what, who and when gear had been left by past

  5. Yes, I think there should have been a marshal at the start of the potholes and the
    hydro section. They would have been able to:
    1. assure racers that the first jump was safe (and that they were in fact at the first
      jump) and;
    2. recognise the altered, abnormal water level that arose, diverting teams from this

At the end of the day we all have to account for our own safety on course and we all have
the right to say, “You’ve got to be kidding, I’m not doing that”. This counts for rope
sections, kloofing jumps or paddle sections on a stormy sea or flooded river. From a course
planning aspect there should always be an alternative route. This is not about crazy
adventures. This is about safety, your skills and your experience. I’d suggest you read
"Competence and Responsibility", an article I wrote a few years ago following an
incident at an event in the E. Cape. You do not have to go into any section on blind-faith,
trusting only the words of any person. See for yourself and make your own decisions (as my
mom would say, if Joe jumped into a fire would you also jump into the fire?).

I can tell you that when I heard of these happenings on Sunday early-afternoon I froze,
images of Storms River flooding my mind. These racers, my friends, had been in serious
danger. Although this should not happen to anyone, I can only say that had competitors less
experienced, less skilled and less competent than Mark and Philip descended into that
turbulent flow, the situation could have been tragic.

So, the teams were sent to T7 and Darron spent the afternoon re-negotiating with the Maguga
Dam officials to implement the dam release they’d “guaranteed” for the day before.
Fortunately the release did happen and the race was re-started on Monday morning just before

Something I must mention; on Sunday night one-by-one the “main” teams said that they would
not be starting again on Monday morning and that they would be withdrawing from the race. A
friend commented to me, “Well, I guess that the race is over now.”

These competitive teams may well have been at the front of the race but they are by no means
the teams that make up the race. “No,” I replied. “These guys may be out but there are still
another ten or more teams who want to get up in the morning. This race is about them too.”

At dinner, up at the new Maguga Lodge, Landrover Gear USN said that they’d decided to line
up at the start in the morning. I returned to the transition below and walked around to each
team telling them of the morning’s procedure and urging them to get up for what would be a
good day; raft, hike and mtb to the finish.

Kinetic opted not to start. Graham Bird’s Mccain Adventure Addicts team started with 3 (Stu
Rawlinson had been battling a dose of flu), Mark Collins’ team would be reduced to a pair
(Philip and Hannlie) as Mark had to fly back to George that evening; he would do the rafting
section with another team. Cyanosis had left for Joburg earlier in the day as Arrie had a
flight to catch on Monday afternoon*. There was a lot of shuffling of members between
Enduro, Tri for Life, aQuelle and others. The only teams with their original members and
full complement included Landrover Gear USN, Adventure Inc. Red Ants, Cyclelab KZN, Sterling
Light, Samurai, Jeep Voetsak (pair) and His People (pair – short course).
* It would be my guess that teams are assuming that they will be finished so far
ahead of the field that it is ok to book flights the day before the prize giving (assuming
that the full 3-day period is for the slow teams and that it doesn’t count for them). What
happens if these teams are not at the front of the race or that the race is planned to take
all three days with slower teams being diverted on shortened courses throughout the race
(which is what happened). Mmmm…

When Darron and Shane tested the river a few weekends before the race it had been at
6-cumic. Water release had been planned at 7-cumic and when it happened the water release
was at 8-cumic. This made some sections better but seems to have turned the first rapid into
a dangerous one. Most teams made it through safely but Mark Collins and raft partner, a pair
from CACE, the pair from A2A and Piers & Philip (Jeep Voetsak) were washed out and trapped.
Again, they all (at different times) made it out uninjured but shaken. The CACE pair
returned to T7 (I recall there being another pair that returned to transition… the pair of
Alwyn and Adele from A2A?)

The only other remarkable incident was when Alec and Wayne from His People went down the
waterfall at OP7, which teams had been instructed to portage. They now have legend status in
the region.

On this… Darron expressly mentioned in the race briefing that team should scout rapids
before going down. When talking to a racer from a “top” team on Monday night, after the
race, he confessed that they just shoot the rapids. Even racers like Ian Adamson and Mike
Kloser bother to get out and scout… You should too. Nonetheless, I do think marshals at OP6,
OP7 and potentially dodgy rapids should have been in place.

Cyclelab KZN had a brilliant day on Monday, blitzing the rest of the field. Landrover Gear
USN was chasing but John Collins had come down ill, battling diarrhoea since morning. This
possibly resulted from drinking contaminated stream/river water during Saturday/Sunday;
something that happened more mildly to racers in other teams. With John incapacitated the
team finally called in, asking their support crew to fetch them.

The results
The race had essentially become a stage race with Day 1 ending when the race was stopped on
Sunday morning and Day 2 starting on Monday morning with the rafting.

So, how would you gauge the results? We went with the option of awarding prizes for Stage 1
and Stage 2 and overall. How would you assess overall? We took the combined teams from the
last manned checkpoint (CP22) on Stage 1 and added it to the finish time on stage 2 to get
an overall result. You can never please everyone all the time so this resulted in a few
debates when I had a discussion with racers, and support crew, on Monday night.

The issues were the following:
Landrover Gear USN had blitzed the field on Sat/Sun, leading by a few hours. They had also
progressed far further than any other team before being stopped and diverted to T7. They
were in the front bunch on Stage 2 but had withdrawn due to illness. Now I have no doubt
that Landrover Gear USN is an experienced and accomplished team and they really raced a
superb race on Sat/Sun. BUT, they did not cross the line as a 4-person team on Monday
(actually, they didn’t cross the line in any case).

This too applied to Graham Bird’s McCain team. They were in 5th (if I recall correctly) at
CP22 (last manned CP) on Stage 1 but they started as a 3-person team on Monday morning.

As you all well know, the most difficult element of adventure racing is the team aspect.
Getting a team to the starting line is the first obstacle and getting a full team across the
line is another story entirely. This is also the element that differentiates adventure
racing from other multisport events. Thus, the team that crosses the line with all team
members intact is the winner.

There were all kinds of IFs. IF the race had been allowed to continue Landrover would have
been finished before John fell ill. IF the race had continued other teams would have still
been in the picture. IF Day 2 wasn’t counted then the results from Stage 1 would have
counted as overall. There was even a suggestion that we put it to the other teams to vote
for a winner! This was a preposterous suggestion. Am I more a friend to John or more a
friend to Mark or more a friend to Tweet? Would they be offended if I voted for another team
who truly deserved the win? We used times on a piece of paper as solid, irrefutable
evidence. What would you have done? There is no precedent for any event.

Friends, winning a race is actually far less important than getting everyone home safe and
sound. What are you going to tell your sponsors? Tell them what happened. Explain that the
race was stopped and then restarted. A restart is never easy as momentum is halted but most
of the competitors got up in the morning for another day of racing. If your sponsor does not
understand that AR is subjected to more variables than I have socks (and I have lots of
socks) then you haven’t done a very good job at explaining this sport to them.

So, Cyclelab KZN took line honours with Adventure Inc. Red Ants, Sterling Light and Samurai
taking 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Jeep Voetsak was the only pair to complete the entire PRO course.

As for the 3-day staged SPORT course. All went well. Most teams appreciated the staged
format and good sleep each night. Others would like the sport event to stay non-stop as in
previous years (Swazi Beverages team essentially turned it into a non-stop event). My
recommendation to these teams is to attend other events around the country of the 150-200km
distances and to enter the Swazi PRO event in 2008. I think the stage format is a nice
introductory version and it brings a more social element to the event.

There are no doubt different versions of the happenings to my account. Truth be told, I do
not know of every nitty-gritty details that happened as I wasn’t there when it all went down
and only caught up with various tales post-occurrence. But I have given much thought to the
things I heard and have contemplated what I would have done and why things happened they way
they did.

On to other topics…

Lessons learned
Teams should remember that things happen, despite the best controls a race organiser
implements. I’d like to see more marshals out on course; but this requires support from the
AR community – racers who are injured, racer who are less experienced and not yet ready for
Swazi Xtreme or racers who have decided to sit out the event, for whatever reason. We need
you to volunteer as marshals – not just at this race but also at other sprint and distance
events around the country. Our community is small and each one of you should be giving
something back to the events.

Support crews
I met a number of novice support crews this weekend. One thing they all have in common is to
do the best they can to take care of their teams. What did horrify me is that many were
inadequately prepared and briefed by their teams. Competitors, without the presence and
dedication of your support crews you would be unable to race. They move your equipment
around, prepare hot meals and sandwiches, drive long distances at night, over rough terrain
and they get little sleep. They deserve to be properly briefed by you about setting up a
transition, preparing meals, what equipment you need for the various disciplines… and you
all have absolutely no excuse. Every team should print out at copy of my series of support
crew articles. I wrote them a few years ago after I was on a support crew for a team at a
500km race (the articles have been updated subsequently with input from experienced support
crews). They can be found under the Articles section on - Support Crew articles

Swaziland is a wonderful country to race through. The people are friendly, the terrain is
diverse and the landscape is beautiful. Darron, Anita and their team of Swazi Trails staff
and kind volunteers put together another a solid race. For this I can take no credit as I
only stepped in to assist during the race. I do plan to be far more involved with next
year’s event.

Congratulations to all the competitors who took part in both the SPORT and PRO events. This
was a tough race and the coldest in the event’s history. No matter how far you got through
the courses you are all winners and I hope that you’ll use each mistake, success and
experience to improve your techniques and skills for races to come.«

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read you Swazi Blog this morning. It is brilliant and sums it all up pretty
well. I think you spot on on all accounts.

I have one comment though. We were happy with the outcome and respected and
supported the decisions that Darron and the organising team made. The only
issue we had is that the communication to the teams was bad. Had it been
communicated to the teams before the restart that the times would be
combined, Stu would have raced (we sat him out as it was not worth risking
his health for a seperate race) and I am sure Land Rover would have pushed
onto the finish. I think the preception amongst the teams was that the
second start was a seperate race. I'm sure Cyanosis would have stayed as
well. Arrie's flight was only on Tuesday morning, from my understanding.

It was an awesome race, as usual and we look forward to the next one. I
hope Darron can improve his relaxed attitude towards safety as that is the
one thing the International teams will not tolerate.


McCain Adventure Addicts