Liam St Pierre – Brisbane, Australia
Who you are, family status and where do you work and play?
I’m based in Brisbane, which is a pretty good playground for an adventure racer – trails at our doorstep that run for 100’s of kilometers if you know how to link them up and the Brisbane River is always a flat water paddle option. Summer can be a pretty gross time to train, although the longer days are a redeeming feature. I work a day job as a molecular biologist, ostensibly to fund my adventure racing addiction. My main field of research has been the identification of toxins from the venom of Australia’s deadliest snakes, but I’ve also worked in projects looking at drug targets for malaria and vaccine development for hookworm. Adventure Racing seems to attract a high proportion people with professional-type careers, and at 33 I still feel young for the sport.
How did you first get into adventure racing?
Unlike the first wave of adventure racers who typically had a multisport/outdoor background I didn’t have any specific experience in any of the disciplines required for adventure racing, just two decades of basketball (which has only helped me in a race once). I got into the sport when it had evolved to formats offering up shorter versions of racing. When I first started out, a 10km run seemed daunting, and the idea of an expedition race lay solely in the realm of those wirey, bearded, uber athletes who eat dirt for breakfast. My first adventure race was 3 hours long with the typical rookie tale: $50 ebay bike, cotton clothing, map in the back pocket and following teams blindly down the wrong path. I’ve been lucky to progress through a series of races of increasing duration (first 24hr race in 2007, 48hr race in 2008, stage race in 2010 and expedition race in 2011), learning from my mistakes along the way – and there have been some hard and painful lessons. I’m at the point where it is only the big races in new and remote areas that really test your skill set that excite me. The short races are great for your fitness and are necessary for the sport to be accessible to new comers, however, as I find myself increasingly time poor, these are the races that I miss more often than not lately.
What attracted you to adventure racing in New Zealand?
I had always been keen to head over to race in New Zealand. When the first GODZone was announced I set about putting a team together immediately. With similar gear logistics to XPD, straight forward flight options to Queenstown, boats provided by the organisers and a reasonable entry fee it seemed like the perfect opportunity. From a logistics and organisational perspective, that and every subsequent GODZone has been amazing, but from a racing perspective, that first event was an eye opener.
What are the major differences between racing in Australia and New Zealand?
Clearly, the biggest difference between New Zealand and Australia is the terrain. We just don’t have mountains and rivers like that at our doorstep in South East Queensland. It’s pretty hard to simulate a 1500m ascent, traverse across a rocky ridge line, a descent down a scree slope followed by a 30km white water canoe paddle in glacial water in our local training areas. The other observed difference is that New Zealand seems to have a lot more multisport races and fewer team based navigational adventure races compared to Australia. The system seems to produce top individual athletes in New Zealand that make great building blocks for strong teams. That’s not to say I don’t think an international team can’t do well at GODZone: Team Macpac from Australia certainly proved this was possible with their podium finish in 2013. I just think the Kiwi’s are always going to be hard to beat in their own backyard. I’ve always thought a top team from France or Scandinavia with experience in similar alpine terrain could give this race a real shake. In saying all this, the race is still very achievable for a middle of the pack team with the right preparation.
You’ve been to GODZone three times now. What do you think are the key things you have learnt about racing at the event?
It wasn’t until crossing the finish line of the second one that I felt I had a handle on what it takes to do well in this race. Aside from a multitude of minor changes to personal equipment, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that there is no substitution for experience navigating and travelling through that type of terrain. The make or break legs of GODZone have been the long trek legs. To do well, you need to be good at travelling over rough and potentially rocky terrain with a lot of steep ascent and descent. Even after my second GODZone in 2013, while I felt confident of navigating a particular route choice on the ground, I still felt like I wasn’t always necessarily selecting the best route options (and there are plenty of these in GODZone). Time reviewing old maps has helped with these. The other big take home lesson from the most recent GODZone is that I finally feel like I’ve got a better handle on the sleep strategy for expedition racing. The team recorded all their sleep and activity data during the race for a small paper which I’m in the process of writing up at the moment. Reading up on the scientific literature behind sleep has been an insightful process: sleep deprivation is certainly not a healthy state for the human body. It has been a humbling experience to go from being able to comfortably run in the top 5 of a premier Australian race like GeoQuest to being a middle of the pack racer at GODZone, however, I’ve finally got the experience to race more competitively over in New Zealand – it is just a matter of having it come together on the week.
How do you managed to juggle training, racing, work and time with the family?
I’ve had races where I’ve vomited for hours on end, frozen my fingers and toes until I couldn’t feel them anymore and injuries which have put me out of action for weeks at a time. But, I still think the hardest part of adventure racing is getting the right balance between work, family and training. Unlike other team sports where a game is over in an hour, an hour doesn’t even count as a warm up when training for an endurance sport like expedition racing. GODZone has seen a small evolution in my training versus family time. My wife was pregnant at the first GODZone, and we’ve had a baby and a toddler in tow at the subsequent two races. Training has evolved to fit around her routine. I don’t feel like I’m training enough and my wife feels like I train too much so I’ve probably hit the right balance. I’m not sure if it’s an advantage having a partner who doesn’t race, as at least there is always a babysitting option, however there are only so many times that you can sell a weekend away as a “holiday – oh, and by the way I’ll just duck out to do a race for a bit”.
Do you have any particular training plan that you work to before competing at an expedition event?
I don’ t have a specific training plan but try to tailor my training depending on what events are coming up on the calendar. I’ll wind back the paddling over winter after GeoQuest in June and try to get in a bit more running over the cooler months. I’m a big believer of specificity, so in the months leading up to an expedition race like GODZone, I’ll make sure to throw in a number of sessions with this in mind. These are typically 8hr to 12hr days out with the pack loaded up and a ton of ascent, riding out to the hills and then trekking through any number of my favourite rocky creek lines. Additionally, I think racing can make for the best training. Racing always pushes you that extra bit. For example, I never take my bike on trails that require hike-a-bike in training, but I’ve done this countless times in racing, and it is very rare that I get navigational training outside of a race environment. One of the best races in Australia I’ve done to simulate the conditions of GODZone is Adventure Junkie’s X-Marathon 24hr race. Long, hilly, tough, paddling in real boats and navigation on a 1:50,000 / 20m contour interval map is as close to the conditions that you will get at GODZone in Australia, and its timing in December makes it a good lead in race, the heat not withstanding.
What key advice would you give to a team coming from overseas to race at GODZone for the first time?
A big question. As I alluded to above, I don’t think there is any substitute for experience, particularly navigating in the New Zealand back country. To give yourself the best chance of finishing, I’d focus on finding the roughest hills to climb off trail and the rockiest creek lines to descend and doing them with heavy pack and map in hand. If you can get through the trek legs of GODZone efficiently, you will have a good race.