Dad and Daughter team - Professor Jim Cotter, an environmental exercise physiologist based in the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, and Charlotte, a third-year sport and exercise science student.
Setting out from Te Anau on 23 February, Professor Jim Cotter, together with his kids Charlotte and Hamish, and close family friend Pieter Brits, began the week-long 2023 GODZONE expedition race.
Ahead of them lay 580km of outdoor adventure, with a mountainous terrain that would involve 11,000m of climb. The first challenge for their team 'Blue September' was a 39km paddle across Lake Manapouri that started in a millpond and finished into a strong cold head wind, that also resulted in 48 hours without sleep.
Seven days and three hours later they crossed the finish line at Riverton, their massive smiles reflecting the collective experience and achievement as family and friends. As a close-knit team they had supported each other through pushing their bodies and minds to the limits, drew on their individual strengths to problem solve together, and shared the joy of experiencing an all-night aurora that blended with a rising dawn sun.
As an environmental exercise physiologist, Professor Cotter is acutely aware of the many wellbeing-related benefits that come with undertaking exercise and activity in nature.
“For me if feels very natural that activity should be taking place in the environment, with the environment, as we have such a natural affinity to be in those spaces,” Professor Cotter says. “There are so many parallels and overlaps between activity and the environment, such as the type of stress our physiology responds to and adapts to.”
Professor Cotter also practices what he preaches in the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, having participated in multiple expedition-length events over several decades.
So, when Charlotte and Hamish approached him with a proposal to enter the 2023 GODZONE as a family, together with their friend Pieter, there was no hesitation.
“When we found out the event was going to be based in Fiordland, we thought we'd seize the opportunity to enter a team, as we've spent heaps of time there as a family and love the environment,” says Charlotte, a third-year sport and exercise science student.
Tramping and active time in nature was an important part of Jim's upbringing, while also paving the foundation for his own path of study and evolving research expertise. Professor Cotter and his wife Kate also ensured a significant amount of time was devoted to activities and regular tramping trips for their own family of four kids.
“What I didn't realise at the time was the extent of learning which was naturally taking place during these experiences,” Charlotte says. She gives examples such as the motor skills and decision-making processes required to navigate a riverbed, climb over loose rocks, or ascend and descend steep slopes.
GODZONE 2023 required the teams to navigate through mountainous terrain that would involve 11,000m of climb (credit: Hamish Cotter).
To prepare for the 2023 GODZONE event, Professor Cotter shared his extensive knowledge and experience, explaining that physically and logistically there's a lot to get right in the lead up to an expedition length adventure race.
“A lot of small things all help such as building up calluses on your hands and tanning up skin to reduce susceptibility to burning during the race,” he explains.
“It's amazing how much capacity the body has to keep going with minimal sleep, but it's important to know that consuming carbohydrates before sleep will maximise the benefits of restoration and replenishment.”
“Also, knowledge about the body's energy systems and how to manage them effectively using water, clothing and nutrition, is really important.”
Training during her second year as a sports and exercise student, Charlotte applied whatever she'd learnt in class, which covered a huge variety of disciplines, to her own preparation. This extended to the event itself when she thought about how her body's energy systems, fuel sources, body and muscles were operating.
Blue September crossed the finish line in 27th place out of 48 teams competing in the GODZONE Pure event. The team were welcomed home by Professor Cotter's wife Kate and their best man, Steve Stanley, who had been their support crew for the duration of the event.
By getting approval to name the team Blue September, which is the name of the Prostate Cancer Foundation's annual awareness and fundraising campaign, the team also achieved what they had set out to do.
Nine years ago, following a regular screening in the absence of any symptoms, Professor Cotter (then aged 48) was diagnosed with high-grade prostate cancer, and wouldn't be alive today if not for that checkup and the resulting whirlwind of appointments, decisions, and procedures.
“It was a surreal and challenging time, including the gravity of decisions and the learning curve for all phases before and after treatment,” Professor Cotter says. “It's one that many families have to go through but was extremely humbling even with Kate and myself having training in health-related sciences.”
Team 'Blue September' hoped to help raise awareness for this cancer, and the all-important message for men to “get checked early”.
Celebrating with family and supporters at the finishing line in Riverton, seven days and three hours after starting in Te Anau (credit: Steve Stanley).
Reflecting on having completed the event, Charlotte says she's “pretty stoked to have done it as a family” and doesn't know how it would've been possible without the support of her Dad, brother and Pieter.
“I guess we know each other's strengths and weaknesses really well which helps to preempt and predict things before they actually happen.”
Professor Cotter adds that one of their strengths as a team is they were likely to be more easily honest and open with each other, a trait that extends to the classroom where he says Charlotte tends to give him “really honest and extra insightful feedback”.
Professor Cotter's mantra of the critical importance of keeping the body active is enduring, and putting this story together, he suggested a walking interview through the Dunedin Botanic Garden.
At the time of the interview, exactly the week prior the Dad and daughter team had been running down Oreti Beach towards the finish line to complete their 580 km expedition through mountains, lakes, forests and beaches.
Wandering and talking through the Botanic Garden with them felt somewhat sedentary when compared to GODZONE, but it's still movement, and any activity is good for the mind and body, particularly when it involves moving through the natural environment.
Kōrero by Guy Frederick, Sciences Communications Adviser