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Athlete Blogs: Naomi Whitehead – Journey to Godzone 2016, The Ups and Downs of an Adventure Racer and the Black Dog…

I stand atop the soft, golden sand with the surrounding air thick with nervous anticipation. Suddenly the gun goes and we are off racing, into the unknown for days on end. Just how did I get to this point, the start of the Godzone Adventure Race 2016? Sit back and let me tell you a story. A story about my journey to Godzone 2016. I give a brief insight into the race itself as part of team Swordfox, however it is primarily about my struggle with depression and how my family, friends and the outdoors helped me to heal.

 

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I like to think of myself as Naomi the person rather than Naomi the doctor, or Naomi the adventure racer, or Naomi who’s Ash’s wife. I am much more than just a doctor or an athlete or anything else, I am all of those things put together and that has helped to shape me into the person I am today.

Taking part in something like Godzone is much more than just turning up to the startline. It takes a fair amount of commitment and training not to mention a large amount of support and understanding from family, friends and work colleagues. It’s a non-stop 500km race done in teams of 4 (at least 1 female). It is a slighty crazy, yet incredibly rewarding experience involving mountain biking, kayaking, down-river canoeing and tramping (known as trekking to non-kiwis). Sometimes something random like swimming is thrown in. The team must travel together at all times while chasing down a series of little orange and white flags (Checkpoints/CPs). The Coasteering in Godzone 2016 was a favourite of mine and thankfully the swimming was kept to a minimum. I also love proper single-track mountain biking (mostly it’s on gravel roads in these races), so this year the Rameka Track had me grinning from ear to ear. To me the racing is just a small part of it. I love sharing outdoor adventures with like-minded people. Overcoming challenges in the outdoors can be similar to real life. There are always unexpected challenges in life.

For me Depression has been one of those challenges. I have experienced 3 major depressive episodes in total with the most significant one coming on in late 2014. I have often said that depression is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. It is an incredibly dark, lonely place to be. Depression or any other mental illness is not pretty. Like Godzone it requires time, patience, energy, and good support to get through. This is a bit of an irony as the illness itself strips you of all energy and motivation. Despite people such as John Kirwan speaking out and sharing their stories about mental illness, there is still far too much stigma around it. Almost everyone is touched by mental illness at some point in their lifetime, with either themselves or someone they know becoming mentally unwell. Mental health and resilience is just as important as physical health, yet for some reason many of us either don’t acknowledge it or feel ashamed talking about it. I am hoping that sharing my story will encourage others to ask for help when times are tough, or reach out to a friend in need.

 

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I am relatively new to adventure racing, in particular expedition style racing. Godzone Kaikoura in 2014 was just my second expedition length race. In the lead-up I had a great summer filled with outdoor adventures with Ash (my husband) and the local lads who I was racing with. We had a blast both during summer training missions and the race itself. We managed a pretty credible result and I was buzzing, hungry for more racing and more success. I made plans and entered in several other races over the next 6-12 months. However a few months later I had become very sick and these plans became redundant. Several things contributed to my depressive illness and as Ash says it was a ‘perfect storm’ of events. Some personality traits and a vulnerability to depression combined and ‘The Black Dog’ came to visit me, taking many months to leave. I was incredibly lucky to have some amazing support from family and friends and together we chased that wicked black dog away. It has been this same network of family and friends that have always supported me in chasing my dreams.

As I recovered from the depression and re-discovered my passion for adventure I had to change my focus somewhat. Rather than being a competitor at Godzone 2015 I opted to volunteer and use my skills as a race medic. This gave me a much greater appreciation for the organisers and volunteers. It was pretty full on making sure I was in the right place at the right time and I often felt like I was getting less sleep than the competitors. At the time I wouldn’t have handled the training and mental strength required to front up on the start line. I was incredibly disappointed and tried to remember that it was only a race. Thankfully Ash and my family were able to remind me just how far I’d come and that it was only a race. I still felt a bit of a failure given I hadn’t been up to racing. In hindsight this was a stupid thought. I was still recovering from a major illness and was doing a damn good job of recovering. I was back working having had several months off while sick, and was getting back into the outdoors and my usual hobbies. Best of all I was enjoying life and had found my smile again, finally!

One of the things that helped me recover from my depression was the support I got from so many family and friends. At times I stubbornly tried to bury my problems and solider on alone. I’ve learnt the hard way that this is not a helpful approach and am happy to accept and seek help and support when it’s needed. I’ve also learnt that constantly pushing myself is not healthy. Striving to improve and do better are both great attributes however this needs to be balanced with adequate rest and relaxation. This includes when racing or competing in sports. Being active in any type of sport and belonging to a group or club is a great way to stay connected to others however it’s important to keep things in perspective. At the end of the day for me Adventure Racing is just one part of my life. It is definitely not everything and staying balanced, positive, happy and healthy is a priority. Connections with family and friends are what’s really important to me. I am incredibly lucky to be able to combine my love of the outdoors with quality time spent with family and friends.

Feeling like I was back firing on all cylinders I signed up to Godzone 2016 with a group of good mates. Being based in our backyard made it hugely appealing. It had been a couple of years since my last long race and despite trying to relax and think positively I couldn’t help but wonder if Godzone 2016 (including the training/buildup) was going to push me over the edge again. Would I still be fit and strong enough to complete the course? Would it be detrimental to my health, in particular my mental health? I tried to push these thoughts aside and just focus on getting out and having fun on day tramps etc. Feelings of self-doubt crept in. I was pretty torn and also pretty keen not to let the depression stop me from achieving anything in life. As a result I ended up over-thinking it. As usual my teammates were super supportive and assured me that being happy and healthy was much more important than some silly race.

I had planned a week long tramp in mid-January to escape the usual day-to-day stresses. We set off to an area on the West Coast that looked adequately challenging but promised spectacular scenery in remote areas. Up the Mikonui River, along Dickie Spur Ridge, down the Tuke River to Ivory Lake then out via the Waitaha River. The trip ended for me only a few hours in when a simple slip on a moss-cover rock had me staring down at my right tibia (lower leg bone). Damn, who put that sharp rock there? Seeing me stumble Ash enquired if I was okay? I promptly replied in a very grumpy voice that it was just a wee slip but my leg wasn’t looking so flash. He responded by whipping out the camera and snapping a pic. Turns out those PLB things do come in handy. I felt a bit sheepish when the chopper arrived given that I could walk ok, but the prospect of a 6+ hour walk back down some steep terrain and several knee-deep river crossings didn’t really appeal, especially with the risk of a bone infection. I waved Ash and our friend Ben goodbye before being whisked off to Greymouth Hospital for a patch up. The team that treated me were amazing and despite my disheveled, smelly appearance fixed me up with efficiency and kindness.

 

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Injuries and illnesses suck. In this case I was annoyed about my badly cut leg but mostly just p’ed off that I had lost out on the tramping trip and a chance to boost my confidence especially with Godzone looming. With mixed emotions I decided to pull out of Godzone. While it is just a race the prospect of racing in 2016 had symbolized a complete journey to wellness for me. Once again I tried to remind myself that it was only a race. This time that didn’t really sit well and there was no sense of relief after pulling out, hmmm.

I kept an open mind about Godzone and adventure racing and my boss at work gave me a few wise words that really helped. My workplace had been so supportive during my depression. I had close to 4 months off work because I was so unwell. My brain was in turmoil and filled with anxiety and stupid, negative thoughts that I couldn’t seem to make sense of. I could barely concentrate to read a newspaper let alone be well enough to make important decisions at work. They gave me the space and time I needed to recover but kept in touch in a very supportive way. I guess they realized that beneath the illness I was a good person and a valuable colleague. This helped immensely.

My leg healed remarkably quickly and by mid-February I was keen to race again. Unfortunately my spot had already been filled. I was incredibly disappointed. It is uncanny sometimes how well things can work out, and a few weeks later two of Ash’s teammates for Godzone decided they no longer wanted to race. I was sooo excited but didn’t want to get carried away. I let him know I was keen but told him to think about whether he could cope with a sleep-deprived version of his wife throughout the race. It’s not always a good idea to race with someone so close! Thankfully he agreed and suddenly I found myself standing nervously in front of a camera beside my 3 Swordfox teammates, with thoughts of adventure and Godzone on our minds. I was pretty nervous and definitely out of my comfort zone…..standing atop a rocky outcrop in my undies in front of a camera was not something I ever thought I would be doing, yet here I was. The guys felt just as awkward as I did but somehow we pulled it off (maybe with some expert photo-shopping), and team Swordfox 2016 – the undie modelling team was formed.

 

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This version of me was such a contrast to several months before when I was struggling to get out of bed and felt empty, lethargic and hopeless. My brain had been pretty scrambled. Ash, my parents, siblings, and several close friends in Nelson were amazing. A couple of my friends helped drag me out of bed on a number of occasions. My GP was also an incredible support, and when it became apparent just how sick I was she promptly got me linked in with the local mental health services who were also amazing. A couple of times I stayed with a friend and her family while Ash was away for work. She had explained to her high-school aged boys that I was a bit sad due to depression, her youngest responded with ‘Hasn’t she been on John Kirwan’s website?’ What stars this family are. They just treated me normally with a bit of extra care, concern and patience. This was such a relief as I felt a bit embarrassed and that everyone must be able to tell what a confused, anxious, negative mess my head was in. Funnily enough people can’t see what is going on inside your head and often have no idea when you are mentally unwell. This is where talking about things and sharing problems is vital. How can people offer support if they don’t know you are in need of it??? Ash was incredible throughout. I’m not really sure how he coped when my tears flowed endlessly. He tells me he remembered all the good times we had shared and that sooner or later I would turn a corner and start to return to my usual happy self and we would have many more good times together.

We certainly shared some great times during Godzone 2016 along with teammates Stu Lynch and Brent Edwards. There was a massive media presence this year and we had been tipped as one of the teams to watch. I found this a bit uncomfortable especially after the underwear ‘modelling’ but did my best to ignore it and just get on with things which seemed to work (most of the time). The logistics/gear sorting was hectic as usual. We ended up spending significant amounts of time juggling gear to get to our boxes under the weight limit. We were disappointed to learn at the gear drop that the weight of our backpacks in bike boxes was additional to the 25kg allowance. Oh well, we weren’t the only ones who found this a challenge. Apart from that the pre-race briefing and gear checks were kept to a minimum and suddenly we found ourselves jostling for position on the start line.

The supporters were one of the standouts of Godzone 2016. We locals know what a beaut spot we have at the top of the south including an amazingly supportive community. Now the secret is out amongst the hordes of NZ and international adventure racers. There were crowds of people at the start including so many of our friends, family and workmates. It was great to finally be off racing after my less than ideal buildup. We had re-jigged our paddling combinations for the first stage anticipating that we’d get only one AR Duo and one heavier, slower sea kayak. I loved the coasteering and any pre-race nerves were soon gone as we clambered around the rocks and in and out of the surf. In his typical understated way Stu had told us he was an okay swimmer but nothing special. So we quickly nominated him to swim the longer distance. He smashed the swim and we soon found ourselves at the kayak pick-up. Ash and I jumped into the AR Duo while Stu and Brent were left with the sea kayak. One of the highlights of the race for me was surfing into Rabbit Island in a double with Ash (the only time we paddled together). We came in first and nailed the landing, apparently this was a rare event and the ensuing surf carnage entertained the local crowds!

 

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Many of the locals hadn’t seen expedition style adventure racing up close before. They certainly got an up-close and personal experience at this transition with many naked bottoms to be seen as teams shed their wet, salty gear before embarking on the next stage. The Swordfox undie modelling was tame in comparison! We made short work of the transition and with bikes assembled split up to collect the orienteering CPs. Stu guided me in the right direction then a quick re-group in transition saw us set off towards the Richmond Hills passing many friends cheering us on along the way. It was very cool! Some confusing forestry roads allowed Yealands to sneak in front but we were quick to close the gap again thanks to some superb navigation from Brent.

We rolled into transition together with Yealands after Stu scared me with a threatened bike mechanical. We jogged off up the road towards the summit of Ben Nevis and into the mist. It was here that the effects of a solid Coast to Coast including the build-up and race then subsequent illness caught up with Brent and he went through a low patch for several hours. That guy can suffer like no-one else I know. We let Yealands go ahead and concentrated on our own race. Stu and Ash took over the maps while Brent and I plodded on behind. I was guilty of getting a bit sleepy and nauseous but thankfully this passed and I eventually caught up on calories. Shortly before daylight Brent suddenly came right despite not really eating or drinking much all night.

With Brent back on the maps we headed up and over a couple of decent hills in pursuit of Beeby’s Hut. The boys lightened my load up the last climb and there was a couple of times that I wondered why the hell I was doing this. My feet and legs were beginning to feel the effects of a limited buildup as well as a night rock hopping through the brutal Red Hills terrain. Our ‘groupie’ Megan popped up at Beeby’s Hut and we chatted away catching up on the race news amongst other things. Once again the transition was filled with our friends and family. I was blown away by the carload of my workmates who came down to St Arnaud just to cheer us on!

 

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It felt good to be on our bikes and we savoured the pie stop at the local dairy en-route to the orienteering at West Bay. I used this as a recovery stage packing in as much food as I could and enjoyed the soft, grassy ground underfoot. We chugged away up the Porika road and were buoyed by the roadside ‘café’ for Godzoners set up by more friendly locals – hot chocolate and home baking yum! The descent to the lake was rugged enough to almost feel like proper mountain biking and we rewarded ourselves with a 2 hour sleep on the outskirts of transition.

It was on Lake Rotoroa that chatty Nomes came out in force. During multi-day races I like to chat lots about nothing in particular to keep the sleep monsters at bay. Jokes, riddles, and funny stories work well however it is often a struggle to think of them when most needed during the ‘witching hours’. I adjusted to the relative quietness of the guys by talking even more than usual, I think I even answered myself back a few times! I babbled away encouraging the boys to join in on my conversation. They were mostly content with offering me single word answers although Ash did come up with a most confusing riddle that we spent some time trying to solve. Later in the race I got so frustrated with that riddle and my inability to solve it that I told him to drop it. Stu tried to explain it to me anyway but my sleep deprivation didn’t lend itself to riddle solving! I enjoyed the peaceful paddle beneath the stars and soon we were chowing down on hot drinks and bolognaise courtesy of the guys from Absolute Wilderness – Andrew and Grant MacDonald. I had a wee smile to myself as they told us our friends in team Yealands had caught them unawares so only had cold food, tough luck guys.

It was only at this point in the race that we started really thinking about whether or not we’d make the dark zone on the following river stage. It looked possible when we got the maps but we all knew that anything can happen in a race and preferred to focus on moving as efficiently as we could. We moved along at a good pace on this trek towards Mole Tops. Brent was visited by his affectionately named sleep monster ‘Andrew’ who made it a struggle to keep his eyes open (thankfully no crazy hallucinations). Andrew got bored of Brent’s company and moved on to me so I swallowed some caffeine tablets to chase him away – it worked! Coming onto Mole Tops was the first time we got any type of view throughout the race and trekking stages after the mist of the previous days. The view was stunning. We all felt good heading off the hill and jogged down to transition at a steady (although not spectacular) pace.

 

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A short time later we found ourselves floating down the refreshingly cold Matakitaki River aboard the inflatable canoes. The briefing about the river sections had been a little vague at times with talk of grade 3 rapids possibly grade 4. I had been eagerly awaiting getting into the canoes and enjoyed the chance to put my feet up. We were in the capable hands of canoe guides Ash and Stu, both experienced whitewater kayakers. Soon enough we came across the Horse Terrace rapid where the river narrowed somewhat. Stu scoped it out from the boat and off we went. Turns out taking on the buffer wave backwards wasn’t the ideal tactic and we found ourselves floating about amongst a fair amount of our gear. Ash and Brent managed to keep their boat upright although Ash got swept off the back. We re-grouped back in the boats with a bit of assistance from the friendly crew from the NZ Kayak School. Stu and I lost all our food so managed to swipe some from the other guys. I had a few micro-naps throughout the middle section of the river, catching myself several times napping for a few seconds. I did manage to multi-task by sleeping and paddling simultaneously! Lower Mataks came and went and we negotiated this without a hitch. I struggled to warm up in the second half of the river but thankfully we reached the end well clear of the dark zone cut-off time. Pies and coke in Murchison helped warm us up ready for more adventures.

 

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The next bike stage was straightforward and we were cheered on by both my parents along the way. Dad had just flown in and I was buoyed on by their support! We chatted as a team about where to take our next sleep. In the end we opted for the ‘safe option’ of sleeping for a couple of hours in transition prior to taking on Mt Owen by foot. Fresh from a nap we made good progress up Mt Owen. Brent lead us flawlessly, picking up the rock cairns in the darkness. We did stop for a few minutes to patch Brent up after he narrowly escaped falling down into the abyss with a deep cut on his thigh to show for it. Caffeine tablets were well utilized through the ‘witching hours’ and sometime during the early hours of the morning we passed by Granity Pass Hut having done all of the trek thus far in darkness. We were excited to hear Team Yealands were only an hour ahead and pushed on in pursuit. Not long after the hut we could see the lights of Yealands and no doubt they could see ours too. Not long after daybreak I hit a rough patch and no matter how hard I tried couldn’t shake myself out of my slow, sleepy mood. I suggested a 10 minute nap to help me get going again and this worked a treat. The Lockett Range took a decent amount of time to negotiate including several ups and downs along the way. It was a treat to have the company of several of my good friends from Nelson towards the end and the guys were astounded just how much four grown women can talk all at once!

 

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We passed through the transition back onto our bikes knowing the end was in sight. Yealands had left a little under 2 hours in front of us. Although they were within striking distance the last 2 stages gave little opportunity for making up significant amounts of time. Once again we took the chance to re-fuel with pies via a short deviation to the Tapawera Tea Rooms. My lowest point in the race was this 100 odd km of flat, straight, boring ‘mountain’ biking that lead to the climb up Takaka Hill. I’m a mountain bike enthusiast and have to discipline myself to avoid really technical riding (and potential injury), in the buildup to races like Godzone. I was expecting plenty of gravel road riding but this was the pits. Combined with some serious sleep deprivation, I struggled to get excited enough to stay awake on this ride. Whinging Naomi came out up Takaka Hill and I put my foot down and insisted on some more sleep. An hour’s kip later we were moving much faster and whinging Naomi had been banished wahoo!

I thoroughly enjoyed the stimulating single-track biking down the Rameka as well as the climb up to the saddle and down into Totaranui. We transitioned onto the last stage the kayak in no particular hurry knowing we were now unable to make up any time. I was feeling pretty sleepy but soon realized that Stu my kayaking buddy was even more so. Every so often he would nod off and almost tip us over so I set about chatting away to keep him awake. Strangely enough I struggled to come up with inspiring conversation so just talked more mindless rubbish. At one stage we even resorted to noughts and crosses in the sand. The low tide meant several long beach runs in search of the checkpoints just to add to the challenge.

 

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Brent, Ash, Stu and myself stumbled across the finish line in Kaiteriteri in second place some 3 days and 18 hours after starting, on a grand total of 5 hours sleep. I feel incredibly lucky to have the resources to be able to do something like this and this year it was unique and amazing to be able to race alongside Ash. Having my Mum, Dad, and younger sister in town to cheer us on and welcome us over the finish line was a joy. I finally feel like I am well again and Godzone 2016 definitely helped me complete the journey to wellness. The guys did a great job of putting up with me throughout the race and overall we had a great time out there. We raced hard but were guilty of getting stuck in cruise mode a couple of times although it is easy to say this in hindsight! The Swordfox team were a fantastic support as always especially Georgina who travelled up to the race! Megan (Brent’s girlfriend) was our number one supporter/groupie and provided good chat during some key moments in the race when I craved some female company!

Spending time in the outdoors has given me so much and every time I do another outdoor adventure or race no matter how big or small, I learn something more that I can utilize in other aspects of life. Recently I have started to share the adventure with the younger generation by coaching a group of school kids. It is very rewarding seeing them grow and achieve in the outdoors and hopefully they can take away some good life skills. Remember you can never tell what someone is thinking so don’t be afraid to offer some support even if it is just a smile or encouraging word. We all need a bit of support from time to time. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about telling our friends about a broken leg, or physical illness and accepting some support. It should be the same with mental illness, it is no different. I’m looking forward to the future and many more fun adventures. I have a few exciting plans in sport as well as in life but am mindful of being flexible if needed, as you never know what might happen tomorrow.

A big thanks must go to our sponsors Swordfox, Torpedo 7, Giant Bikes, Tinelli and Awaken Bars.

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