In only her third-ever individual multisport race, Ali Wilson stamped her mark on the McDonald’s Whakatane Motu Challenge, taking the women’s individual title in a quick 8 hours 19 minutes.
The Mount Maungaui physiotherapist completed the gruelling 172km loop from Opotiki with consistently-strong stages and finished well clear of multiple-Motu champion Elina Ussher (8hrs 40min), with Liz McDougall third (9hrs 4min).
It was Wilson’s first start in Motu Challenge. She won the Riverlock Motu 160 the last two years but “this year it was time to step up and not fear the Waioeka river, but rather embrace it”.
Equally impressive, Dougal Allan of Lake Hawea took out the Motu Challenge men’s title, in 7hrs 25mins. Sam Manson of Christchurch (7hrs 43min) and Stuart Lynch from Auckland (7hrs 59mins) closed out the men’s multisport podium.
Allan finished the opening 65km MTB stage several minutes ahead of Mason, following up with a quick 1hr 12min run. Just like Wilson, the rest of the day, he never really looked threatened.
“I was super proud and relieved to win my first Motu Challenge, nine years after my first and only other crack at the race,” he said.
“It was an amazing opportunity to race against Elina who is a legend in the multisport world,” Wilson commented.
Allan ran over the finish just after Dan Jones of Team Topsport Kayaking (Jones, Dan Barry, Kate Cambie). A few hours earlier, Jones had chalked up the elusive milestone of a new Motu Challenge stage two run record, squeaking under the one-hour mark by just one second.
Ali Wilson’s race plan was to go hard from the opening stage, “to try get away from the other females and to put in as much time as I could before the kayak stage, still somewhat doubting my kayaking ability.”
“Reaching the first climb on the Motu Road [Meremere hill] I realised I was the only female and was also in a good position with a number of riders around me. The mountainbike stage is tough in that it’s difficult not to ‘cook your legs’ but my legs seemed to be there for the run,” she said.
The 32-year-old’s run through Whinray Scenic Reserve was solid, though she rated it “nothing flash—apart from the course!” Coming into transition she learned that her lead on Elina Ussher after the mountainbike stage had been relatively modest. That was “fuel to the fire for me to get my head down on the TT bike and go for it!”
“It was a pretty lonely road section, into a strong headwind through the gorge. My race plan of burying my legs went to plan and I was thankful to rack the bike and jump into the kayak!” she said.
Back in February, when Wilson placed a superb second in the Coast to Coast longest day, kayaking was her clear weakest link.
“I’ve spent a lot more time this year focussing on my paddling. Living at The Mount we’ve had a good few runs down the Waioeka at various different flow rates which massively helped my nerves on the day,” she said.
Onto the river she had around nine minutes on Elina Ussher, “but I was far from confident knowing the kayak was where I could either win or lose the race. The support on the river stage was great motivation and so well needed for the long old slog into the prevailing headwind with minimal river flow.”
Wilson was support-crewed by Anna Dean, Bobby Dean and Mairead Cornille. Her sponsors are Flow Kayaks, Em’s Power Cookies, and MyRide Mount Maunganui.
Her next main focus will be Coast to Coast 2021. “Last years C2C was my first attempt and I managed to finish second with a whole load of rookie mistakes and not the most perfectly executed race plan — which excites me for 2021,” she said.
Men’s winner Dougal Allan chose to sit tight in the mountainbike bunch from the start and get a feel for the pace on the road.
“Sam Clark rode off the front which I thought was cool and given he was in a team I wasn’t fussed. I thought it would be an amazing performance if we never saw him again!”
Clark was soon reigned in, however, and Allan went off the front with Riverlock Motu 160 riders Brad Jones and Jamie Shields. “I figured it was an opportunity to create some early space between myself and Sam Manson who I saw as the biggest threat to my chances of winning,” Allan said.
“We pushed hard and evenly until the final descent towards Motu where Brad took a nasty spill. He was the strongest rider of the three of us so it was a massive shame to see him go down.”
Allan’s strategy for the run was all about “consolidating a lead but staying on top of my effort. [Team runner] Dan Jones flew by about half way through and was on a mission.”
Onto the road bike, Allan knew he was ahead but he had no idea by how much.
“I was feeling good until about halfway through when I started to get quite hungry. I realised I had overlooked solid food in my race plan and the hunger pains became quite distracting. No amount of gels seem to plug the gap!”
“The transition to the kayak was a bit sombre as I knew I had not given my support crew any solid food. As I climbed into my kayak I made a mental note that I would have to dig pretty deep and put up with the feeling of wanting to eat something substantial!”
A few minutes into the paddle Allan took a fairly relaxed line into a bluff section, expecting the river to have more power. “Instead I just went nose-first into the cliff and ended up sitting in the eddy on the wrong side of the bluff. About a million sweep strokes I was back on my way and vowing to concentrate better.”
“I was disappointed to have let myself become so hungry as it was really distracting me from such a stunning patch of river scenery.”
“Once off the river and into a banana and muesli bar thanks to my crew, I was on the final stretch. Despite still not knowing what my lead was, I sensed I was likely to win.”
Still, he “kept the heat on a little” with teams catching from behind. A final spurt got him across the line second overall, just behind team Topsport’s Jones.
“I want to thank Jarrod and the Motu Challenge team for their tenacity in making the event happen this year,” Allan said. “I also want to thanks Eric, Blake and Nicola for their incredible support crew performance. Finally I want to thank Bivouac Outdoor, Duncan NZ Venison and my other fantastic sponsors for making it possible for me to experience a race like this.”
Looking back she reckoned she should probably give her kayaking ability a bit more credit. “It appears the backing from Flow Kayaks and the new Rockstar, alongside hours of training on the water are paying off!”
Into the final transition, with no chasing women in sight, Wilson started to believe she could do it. But it was only on the final run that she felt confident she had the race in the bag.
“I still pushed on to the finish line,” she said.
“Motu Challenge really does put on a race in such an amazing part of New Zealand. It has the ability to make you hurt in whatever conditions it decides to put on! It’s a true race of cat and mouse and a race that never lets up.”
“There is just such good camaraderie and support amongst the multisport athletes, eveyone just wants the best for each other.”
Motu always serves a wealth of options across individual and teams multisport, biking and duathlon and in a difficult year for organizing anything beyond a cup of tea, it was great to see a sound turnout.
Rotorua’s Amy Haddon was Riverlock Motu 160 Women’s Champion. Haddon posted a smart time of 5hrs 38mins ahead of Elle Nieschmidt from Auckland and Adelle Allbon of Whangarei.
An impressive ride by Jamie Shields of Tauranga saw him 2020 Riverlock Motu 160 winner, in 4hrs 42mins. Shields was amongst the overall leaders after the MTB stage, then rode solo on the road back to Opotiki.
A strong finish in the fresh headwind by Glen Carabine, Mt Maunganui, secured second place (4hrs 45min) with the ever-consistent Stephen Sheldrake of Gisborne third.
– Jim Robinson