Spirit aplenty in all-women adventure




Early Saturday morning, 1200 women from across the country straddled their mountain bikes in a grassy Taupo paddock. After a haunting karakia, Whai Ora Spirited Women Adventure Race director Neil Gellatly counted down and the first wave of participants pedalled into the darkness, tail-lights and head-torches quickly swallowed in thick fog.


In only its second year, the 300 available team places at Spirited Women 2017 sold out in just two months, reinforcing the growing demand for all-women outdoor events. Gellatly: “I think all-women events inspire women to challenge themselves, to step outside their comfort zone in a safe environment with their girlfriends. Our focus is to get people active and into the outdoors – a lot of these women have jobs and families, and they have come away this weekend to do something for themselves.”


“I want them to have a whole lot of fun with their friends. I want them to go through highs and challenges and laughter. This event is about being fit and healthy; it's about well-being and having a balanced lifestyle.”


In keeping with the event philosophy of health and well-being, Spirited Women partnered with new product Whai Ora, to deliver Saturday’s event.


As the day wore on, teams of four competed over short; medium and long distance options: the quickest team came in under four hours and the final participants crossed the line around 11pm, weary but jubilant. All the women trekked, mountain biked, paddle-boarded and completed mystery activities including clay bird shooting and bouldering over the course of the day. Long course participants added a kayak to their repertoire.


Champagne and smiles for the winners of the Spirited Women Adventure Race – team NZ Adventure Retreats (Nic Leary, second from right)

Photo credit: Roy Schott @208medianz


Gellatly saw the event grow three-fold after its debut in 2016, reflecting a trend for women to move away from being sideline spectators and invest in their own wellness journey. For some, it is about returning to fitness interrupted by careers and children: for others, it’s about refusing to let these things interrupt their thirst for life, as Team Preggo’s Plus One attested. They signed up for Spirited Women shortly after entries opened only to have three of the four members fall pregnant. “Is this a disqualification? We have seven members in our team!” they laughed, happily competing in the mid-distance event in their second trimesters. “The big challenges for us will be hormones, baby brain – and toilet stops.”


Completing Spirited Women is an opportunity for team Kind of a Big Deal to celebrate life in a different way, after three members suffered significant losses in recent months. “Life is short – our Mums didn’t have the chance to really live so we are going to,” they smiled.  


Lou James is founder of the Pinc and Steel Cancer Rehabilitation Trust, the official charity partner for Spirited Women. "I encourage many women to do this event because exercise is medicine,” she commented. “The combination of exercising outdoors in nature with your friends will undeniably help women's physical and mental health in a supportive and fun adventure. We have some teams in this year, and I would love to support more women after cancer through this event in the future."


A large part of the event’s appeal is that it is all-women, as Team FBI explained. “My husband usually loads our boards and bikes on the car – it’s not that I can’t do it, it’s just that he does it while I do other things. Signing up for Spirited Women meant I had to learn to do those things myself – and I feel really good about that. It’s empowering.”


Team Victorious Secrets agreed. “We went into our local bike shop and asked the guys to show us how to change our tyres. They were really supportive – showed us how to fix chains, gave us advice about other things to look for and gave us some free tools. And it’s empowering being with a collective of women of all different abilities who may not have the confidence to do these things themselves.”


For Team Fit365, the appeal of an all-women event was linked to in-race attitude. “For us, this is about participation, not performance: with men, it tends to be all about performance.” Team Hot Under the Collar agreed: “Don’t get us wrong, we are competitive – we won’t let each other down, but it’s not that ‘push it til you vomit’ competitiveness of men. Women are more intuitive in their stress response to each other – we are more likely to say hang-on, let’s stop and figure out what’s going on.”


The level of preparation and preparedness varied depending on individual team goals. Many participants took advantage of navigation courses delivered by Rachel Smith (Navigation North), paddle-boarding instruction provided by Starboard’s Victoria Stewart and JK Coaching’s mountain bike and run clinics. Others took a more laid-back approach: “Last night we googled ‘how to change a tyre’ and ‘how to use a compass” giggled one team. “We printed out instructions from YouTube and have them in our pack if we need them.”


“We just want to finish, to enjoy ourselves, to have fun – and still be friends at the end” was a common refrain.


In it for the win, yet still enjoying themselves, Team NZ Adventure Retreats returned to convincingly defend their long course Spirited Women championship title. “Yeah, I think we came here to win,” Nic Leary said. “We would have been disappointed if we didn’t race to our potential.”


Her team missed a checkpoint in the early morning fog and darkness and dropped to fourth place but kept cool heads and quickly clawed back the lead. “We loved the course – it was really interesting, took us to lots of places we wouldn’t normally go to. The race format was different to last year: shorter, faster stages which we really enjoyed. Paddle-boarding in the fog while it was still dark was really, really cool.”


Most participants made a weekend of it in Taupo, enjoying free yoga sessions, hot pools, breakfast and a Sunday awards ceremony.