The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run: 2020

Revenant 2020 was all we hoped for and more. It had drama, heartbreak and challenge a-plenty.

I was lucky enough to be out on the course in this year’s event. Here’s how it unfolded.

The 2020 Revenant Ultra Adventure Run challengers meet at the race briefing at the Welcome Rock Trails / Blackmore Station woolshed. The next time they’ll all be together will be at the start line in the early hours of a January morning.

Can You Imagine Going Deep Into The Revenant?

“ I saw a black and white cow pulling a caravan up the river.”

That might have bothered Shaun the first time he clambered up the Nokomai River. But as he scrambled over boulders and under logs for the fourth time in 60 hours, the cow didn’t faze him at all. 

When you’re pushing body, mind and spirit to the limit, hallucinations happen. Your brain starts to play tricks when you’ve been running and navigating with no sleep. And when you’re climbing, descending and racing for 190km over three days. 

It happens when you go deep into The Revenant.

25 men and women lined up in the 2020 race on Welcome Rock Trails this year. Some had been there before — they had demons to conquer. Last year, no-one came close to finishing the race. 

Others were there to discover their own limits. How would they face the challenge that is the Revenant Ultra Adventure Run?

Two Revenant racers clamber over logs in the beech forest beside the rocky Nokomai River bed.
It’s tricky terrain down in the beech forest near the Nokomai River. Photo supplied by Scott Worthington.

The Terrain Is Tough When You Leave The Track

The Revenant is unusual, even in the Ultra Race world. 

It’s a boutique race — you won’t find hundreds here. 

There is no trail, no set course to run. Instead, the runners must navigate their own path. No cellphones, no GPS, even watches are forbidden. A Compass and a marked topographical map are your only aides. 

It’s tough. Destined to take you to the limit. Designed to see you fail.

You push through waist-high tussocks; slide past clumps of spiky Spaniard plants. Scramble up — or down — almost vertical beech forest slopes. Midnight finds you inching along that rocky, log-strewn river. 

“But the stars at night are something else,” they tell me. 

You’re searching for fourteen, hidden checkpoints. Find them all, and you’ve completed one lap. But there are four laps in this race. You’ll have to do them all to become a Revenant.

The Ultra Challenge

Ultra Adventurers do it for the challenge. And that’s what they get on The Revenant. Scott Worthington and Tom O’Brien have stacked all the odds against these racers. In fact, that’s why so many have returned.

“I’ve done plenty of other adventure races, and ultra runs,” Mike told me. “Barring injury, you always know you’re going to finish. That’s what I like about the Revenant. I don’t know that I’ll finish this race. Don’t even know how far I’ll go.”

There’s plenty to beat you down on this race. 

In 2019 fourteen hours of clammy mountain fog wore the runners down. This year, the clear skies dished up 33°C, but temperatures plummeted in the pitch-black night. 

“It’s the heat that got me,” admitted Chadd. “Not the lack of sleep. We have plenty of hot temperatures in the US, but it’s a different sort of heat to this.”

The cutoff times in The Revenant are tough too. 

You have 30 hours to complete two laps — anticlockwise and then clockwise. Then another 15 to get the next lap under your belt. 

Ignore your aching feet — remember to eat and drink. Snatch an hour of sleep — try to beat the cramps. Find the next clue, collect the page that proves you found the checkpoint and make sure you keep it safe.

If you don’t produce all fourteen pages, you’re out. 

Miss the cutoff time? You’re out. 

If someone yells ‘remember your walking sticks’ as you stand up to leave… you are out.

Four runners in hip-high tussocks on the Water Race trail in the Revenant Ultra Adventure Run.
Runners on the water race coming up from checkpoint 8. Last year, the notorious checkpoint was buried in thick fog. In 2020 the days and nights were clear. That made for some happy runners. It’s much easier when you can see where you’re going. Photo supplied by Scott Worthington.

Unsupported — But Not On Your Own

The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run is an unsupported race. 

Competitors bring their own food and equipment, and NO ONE can help them with it. This is tough, especially on the watching families.

“Usually, we’re like a well-oiled machine when Shaun comes in,” says Madeline. “Making sure he’s got everything — water, food, dry socks, map.” 

If his wife did that on the Revenant, Shaun would be out of the race. 

“Here, we have to stand back and do nothing. It feels weird.”

Unlike many races, the competitors are not wearing trackers. That’s the part that Tony finds the toughest to take. Not knowing where Jean is on the course. 

“Usually I can follow her progress — but with The Revenant, I can’t. That’s hard.”

So, the competitors are on their own — and yet, they’re not. 

Because in The Revenant racers are competing against the race, not against each other. There are no prizes to win. No trophies to raise. No-one will be first, second or third. 

You either finish, or you don’t.

So teams form, break up, and reform. It takes a while to sort out others who fit your pace and style. And the runners encourage each other. They may even point out the right way to go.

There are watchers out on the course too. 

Volunteers, photographers, journalists are all roaming Welcome Rock Trails. It’s their job to spot the racers and radio into HQ. Can they encourage the runners? Of course! 

Revenant runner Shaun Collins fills his water bottle at the tap beside the outdoor bath at the Slate Hut on Welcome Rock Trails.
I spotted Shaun as he filled his water bottle from the tap beside the outdoor bath at the Slate Hut. He was in good spirits here not far into his fourth lap. Shaun ran the entire last lap alone. I can’t imagine how he did it.

But, can they give a helping hand? Absolutely not!

“We sat well above Checkpoint three and watched them go the wrong way,” mourned Kendra, Ian, and Graham later on at the Mud Hut. “It was excruciating, but we couldn’t say a thing.”

So, how do the rest of us watch a race when there are no spectator spots on the course? You follow it on Facebook, of course.

Around the world, hundreds of followers were glued to their phones. All through the day and night, Scott posted on social media. Supporters rejoiced in the photos, videos, interviews and updates. 

Revenants

The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run is well-named. 

A revenant arises from a dark, often terrible place or situation. Mentally and physically, you descend to some dark places to conquer this race. 

Revenants happen in life too. At the pre-race briefing, Scott dedicated this year’s race to Ben Lott. In his eyes, Ben is an adventure racer who is the epitome of a revenant. 

“Long story short,” Scott told us. “He’s broken his neck — then suffered two strokes. He lost his job … lost everything. But Ben is re-emerging.” 

In July Ben set himself a target to enter an incredible race, the Yukon 1000. Only 30 two-man teams can enter this kayaking race. Completely unsupported, they’ll paddle the rivers of Alaska and Canada — 18 hours a day for a week or more. 

“When you’re out there,” said Scott to this year’s challengers. “When you’re down, and it’s hard, re-emerge like Ben.” 

Hope And Heartbreak

One by one, as the hours grind on, runners begin to call it a day. If one finishes, he or she will get to drink the Welcome Rock Whisky. The rest “tap the bottle” to signify that this is where they stop.

Some are supremely happy with their effort. “I wanted to finish a lap,” said Bronwyn. “Last year, I didn’t manage that, and it rankled.” 

Other racers are gutted when their bodies let them down. The last thing they want to do is tap that bottle.

The final tap-out was heartbreaking. Ian Evans was on target to make the 45-hour cut-off and start his fourth lap. 

Ian Evans replenishes his food supplies in the transition area at Revenant HQ.
Ian heads out on another lap. Right until the end of lap three, he was on target to finish. Tom says that watching him tap out was “absolutely gutting.”

But checkpoint 14 is hard to find in the dark. Ian veered off course and arrived at HQ a mere fourteen minutes late.

And Then There Were Three

“Come on,” said Ben. “Time to make another update.”

So we left the race directors biting their fingernails at HQ and piled into a Welcome Rock jeep. The first two runners were close to checkpoint 13, and we wanted to film the moment.

At the gate, we ditched the jeep and hiked down a farm track and across a swamp. We scrambled past the rusty, old flumings (water pipes) and clambered a steep slope to the top. There we sat, waiting for our first glimpse of Angus and Louis. After some 55 hours of racing, surely they wouldn’t falter now?

Finally, two dots appeared, trotting along the track far below. 

“I can’t believe they’re still running,” Shane muttered. 

We cheered, waved and whistled encouragement as the men came closer. 

“Better get an interview,” said Ben, and disappeared over the side, cell phone in hand. 

Ripping out the vital pages to prove they’d checked in took seconds. It was, after all, the fourth time Louis and Angus had been to checkpoint 13 this year.

With a grin and a wave they turned and ran up the next slope, heading for Checkpoint 14. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we’d just met Scott’s first-ever Revenants.

Angus and Louis are in! They’ve completed the Revenant. What a journey. #Revenant #VolkswagenNZ

Posted by Revenant on Saturday, 18 January 2020
Angus and Louis run home.

Now, all minds turned to Shaun ‘the Running Beast’ Collins — still out there somewhere on the course. 

“How Shaun is doing it on his own… I don’t know,” said Louis. “He’s keeping on pushing. He’s a bloody legend.”

Where was he now? Nobody knew. 

Finally, The Running Beast Comes Home

Back at HQ, Tom and Scott paced. Angus and Louis peeled their shoes off aching feet. They stretched out their toes and savoured the aftertaste of Revenant Whisky.

All over the little plateau, there were clumps of competitors rehashing the race. Family, friends and well-wishers lounged on deckchairs and chatted. Time stretched out — the sun shone — and we waited. 

“Here he comes!” someone yelled. 

And there he was, running down the road more than 58 hours after the race began. 

Clapping, cheering, whistling… the crowd brought the Running Beast home and once more, the haka rang out. The third and last Revenant of 2020 was in at last. 

The Revenant Whiskey. The last one for 2020!#Revenant #VolkswagenNZ

Posted by Revenant on Saturday, 18 January 2020
Shaun Collins finally gets to drink the Welcome Rock whisky. “The whisky is in honour of the race-men who came before you,” said Scott, referring to the original Chinese water race keepers.

Last Word On The 2020 Revenant

It’s amazing what these athletes achieved in the 2020 Revenant. 

Some of them have won world-class races. Some are international names in the ultra running world. There are doctors, teachers, soldiers, lawnmowers, air traffic controllers, analysts and many more. All of them are humble — there are no egos showing here. You have to really dig to find out their achievements.

And every single person came to face a challenge and to see how far they could push their body and their minds.

Tom O’Brien of Welcome Rock Trails calls them “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” 

He’s right. I’ll leave the last word to Kevin Richards, who’s learned a lot about ultra running since the Amarok ute became linked to The Revenant Run.

You’re a group of people who have just got a huge amount of motivation, perseverance and dedication to achieving something mere mortals like me feel is madness and that doesn’t make it madness it makes it incredibly impressive…And it’s that willpower and strength of mind that we find incredibly impressive.

Kevin Richards, VW Commercial. Official sponsors of the Revenant Ultra Adventure Run.

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2 Replies to “The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run: 2020”

    1. Thanks, Vicki. I really enjoyed meeting you and all the people there. I think the athletes are very lucky to have such supportive families behind them.

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