It’s quite the contrast; the tranquillity of Tasmania’s stunning Freycinet peninsula and the mental and physical punishment that the competitors of the Mark Webber Challenge are preparing themselves to endure. The Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge has been on a hiatus for three years but this year it’s back, with twenty-five teams set to paddle, bike, run, abseil, swim (and in some parts, possibly stagger, swear and cry) around the 350km course.
Today is the first day of racing, with a loop starting and finishing at the Freycinet Lodge, just south of Wineglass Bay. The race will finish on Sunday in Hobart, after taking in a great deal of the best ocean, mountain and coastal terrain Tasmania has to offer.
Mark Webber will be competing once again this year, this time with Challenge veteran and former Ironman champion Guy Andrews, but will only race on day one as he’s got a previous F1 commitment from Thursday. When Mark leaves, Aussie Olympian Darren Clarke will take over for the last four days of the race. It does sound a little like organising a party and then heading out to see a film but if you’re the closest Australia has ever gotten to having a James Bond (and I am counting George Lazenby), you do get a little latitude.
Representing Red Bull in the Challenge will be Australian V8 Supercar driver Rick Kelly and South African ultra-marathon runner Ryan Sandes. Let’s learn a little more about them.
I guess it’s possible that someone has run more miles in 2011 than Cape Town’s Ryan Sandes, but it’s highly unlikely they covered the ground as quickly. Well known in the strange and masochistic world of ultra-endurance races, Ryan’s seam-splitting race CV includes the honour of being the only man in the world to have won all of the 4 Deserts races (Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica), each of which are 250km self-supported foot races. Ryan has also won the Jungle Ultra Marathon, the Leadville 100 and has placed second in RacingThePlanet Namibia, covering more than 150km in distance in all races.
Ryan got the Challenge invitation a couple of weeks ago when preparing for a 250km footrace in Nepal and, having always wanted to see the Tasmanian coastline, he agreed quickly. The Challenge will finish his year of racing before heading back to Cape Town for some well-earned rest and possibly some shopping for some new sneakers.
“I think some parts of the race, like the running, will be quite easy for me but I don’t have a lot of experience in multi-discipline or team races so I’m not sure what to expect,” Sandes says. “I know our goal is just to finish, but I do very much like to come first.”
And yes, he did win the Nepalese race.
Rick is well known in Australia as an owner and driver for V8 Supercar team Jack Daniels Racing. He’s also known as the youngest man to win Bathurst. Few, however, know him as an adventure racer. Largely because he’s never adventure raced.
“This is something I've always wanted to do, but the Challenge always conflicted with our (V8 Supercars) championship so I’ve never been tested,” says Kelly. “This year I could do it and now I’m just starting to understanding the difference between saying you want to do something and having to actually get out there and do it.”
Rick, like most elite drivers, is extremely fit and does have more experience riding mountain bikes and kayaking than his partner, but is nervous, wondering if his body and mind will hold up in the latter stages of the race. Rick’s last race (The Telstra Sydney 500) was the same distance as Ryan’s last race and Kelly says it was gruelling enough with 650 horsepower of help. And then there’s that ferocious competitive steak that Kelly is well know for.
“You have to let people go past sometimes when you’re driving, when your nursing fuel and tyres but you’re thinking about when you can catch them later. Here, I think we need to concentrate on taking it a little bit easy early on, to make sure we have enough in the tank.”
So on day one, the V8 driver won’t take the opportunity to take down the F1 driver?
“Well I guess if we decide we’re not going to make it then maybe it would make sense to go hard on the first day,” Kelly laughs.
Sandes says he and Kelly spoke a little bit about where your mind goes on extreme distance races.
“You feel like your world is ending and you just want to ball up and basically die,” says Sandes. “But the lower the low, the higher the high. So while you hit that true low, you can look forward to your true high.”
The weather in Tassie couldn’t be better, with high teens and early twenties expected until day five of the race so all the racers looked quite happy as they arrived at Freycinet Lodge, race HQ for the first couple of days.
The day before the event, most seemed concerned with the setting up and acquiring equipment, a little map study and some competitor eyeballing. Most eyeballs ended on Mark, Guy and Darren as well as the three international teams, namely two French teams racing under the Garmin banner and an Italian team representing Pirelli.
Rick and Ryan, bretheren in the Red Bull athlete stable but actually complete strangers, took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better and spend a little time in the two-man kayak. Webber had a couple of tips for the Red Bull guys, saying hydration and blister management is of the utmost importance. He also noted he thinks both of the Red Bull guys have the fitness to do well in the race, it’s just a matter of how the personalities match.
Rick and Ryan both had nice things to say about the other, but such platitudes are easy with zero kilometres under the belt.
Stay tuned for more news as the race gets underway.
WANT MORE? VISIT THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE HERE