Monday, January 29, 2018

X MARATHON 48 HOUR ADVENTURE RACE | MARLO, VICTORIA | TEAM WILD EARTH - TIGER ADVENTURE



I never thought I'd be writing a race report about the time we won it on the final paddle. My love/hate relationship with water sports means I'd love to be good at them, but hate actually getting in the water. And I've been spending a lot of time in the water while paddling. Thankfully the craft provided in adventure racing are near uncapsizable and take no skill to stay in so I can focus on thrashing about with my inefficient stroke and the growing blisters on my hands.

X Marathon 48 hour race was based in the charming seaside village of Marlo for 2018. It doesn't pass my threshold as a town lacking a major supermarket or, at least, an IGA. But it had the convenience of the holiday park being a one minute walk to the pub which was doubling as race HQ. After driving 5 hours from Melbourne airport the last thing I want to do is try to source dinner but the organisers Sergey and Maria are veteran racers themselves so have the foresight to include pre-race dinner as part of the entry. Being able to focus on marking the maps rather than cooking is just one of the many small things which make this event competitor friendly.

The 4.30am wake up was less friendly on race day and we piled into buses for the 3 hour drive to MacKillop's Bridge on the Snowy River. It was already heating up when the gun went off at 9am and was forecast to hit high 30s later on. Not exactly what you want for an ultra endurance race. Our team, Wild Earth - Tiger Adventure saw Gary Sutherland, John Laughlin and I team up for the 3rd time with Sunshine Coast hard-man Russell Stringer completing the team.

Starting with a split leg, Russ and John ran to CP1 on a nearby hill top while Gary and I pack rafted down river to the pick up point. And waited. And waited. After a few coo-ees in the bush the boys appeared after taking a longer route than planned and we'd been passed by a few teams. We were then passed by a lot more teams when our raft deflated and we spent time looking for the puncture. Hot tip: make sure the air valve cap on your raft is always done up extra tight. Reinflated, we started making up spots and enjoyed the more exciting rapids on course, with Gary and I taking just one swim in the process.

What do you call a man coming through the bush? Russell - sucking in the big ones at the top of the first mountain climb


Pack rafting is possibly the least comfortable thing I've ever done. I'm too short to sit in the raft without my elbows hitting the sides. While kneeling gives superior power transfer, it leaves my knee caps prone to being shattered by submerged rocks and 6 hours in that position, leaves my body screaming for mercy. Raft designers - can you please get across this and build decent seats into your products? Using our 'waterproof' dry bag as a seat only revealed it to be neither air nor water tight.

Out of the rafts we quickly packed them and hiked straight up a mountain. 400 metres ascent over 800 metres horizontal in 36 degrees and my calves weren't the only things burning. It was late afternoon and we'd only complete the first leg and now had our bikes to build. The first MTB had 2400 metres of climbing in it which made my Hobart-standard 30 tooth chain ring a good choice. I hadn't drunk enough during the rafting and felt quite nauseous with a pounding headache as the sun set. Some paracetamol and ibuprofen sorted that out so I was in a better state than a lot of racers who were vomiting with heat stroke and unable to continue. Getting back on top of my fluids and a steady diet of warm, stale Vegemite and cheese sandwiches kept the sodium levels nicely balanced.

Passing a couple of teams during the hike we were now in 3rd with the race favourites in front of us. The uphill riding was tough but the downhills were unbelievably dicey. Extraordinarily steep and loose I knew some less experienced riders may lose some skin or worse. It was great to have a team of guys competent on a tricky descent and my heart was in my mouth several times keeping up. There's often no single-trail in races but that doesn't mean it's not technical. We take bikes places they have no business being. More on that later.

At the next transition we headed straight out on the rogaine. After suffering on the first run and bike leg, the boys sent Gary and I out to get the most distant CPs. We trotted around spotting the two other teams out on course. It was close racing but we focused on making less mistakes, keeping moving and let the race unfold. The former didn't go well as we added a degree of difficultly by forgetting the CP descriptions for this leg. Luckily most of the flags were in the places you'd expect them to be. Coming together with Explore East Gippsland during the next pack raft was a real lesson. It was one of those frustrating rivers where the water was alternately deep then too shallow to paddle meaning a lot of in and out of the raft. The experience of racers, like Rob and Kathryn Preston, showed as their paddle to run transition was smooth and efficient while ours was awkward by comparison. After an hour Gary and I had our routine sorted - I jumped out and grabbed the gear bag while he shouldered the raft. Except that one time I failed to hear him ask for a food break and we both kept walking, leaving the raft behind us. Communication is key. 

The electronic wrist bands are a welcome addition meaning all team members have to go to all check points. No more dodgy punch cards!


Caving was a fun addition to the race but non-tourist caves meant a lot of sliding through small spaces would be required. This section was untimed in that it was estimated to take 20-30 minutes but we could not leave on the next leg until our mandatory 60 minute stop was up. This enabled us to relax a little and really enjoy the caves which, after the initial tight squeeze, opened up into fascinating caverns. Having to navigate both horizontally and vertically is a special skill which we discovered John possessed at our XPD race. The hardest part was finding the entrance but after that we got through quickly and had time to pack our rafts and assemble our bikes to leave right on the the end of our hour 'rest'. 

We had remarked on the lack of hiking in this race. Well there turned out to be plenty of hiking, it was just in bike shoes. We passed Explore Gippsland just after the start of the second mountain bike leg, collected some CPs and then hit the river crossing. One pack raft was provided by the race to transport 4 bikes and people across the river. This meant the bikes got a dry ride while the people swam across with any 'not to be wet' items thrown in the boat. This did not include my race food but the ziploc bags keep things dry 90% of the time. I was discovering that wet bread is a lot easier to eat than dry bread when one is low on saliva anyway.  A short time later we started the 4km hike-a-bike section. This may have been a steep, rough walking trail 20 years ago but now it was overgrown and littered with fallen trees and rock sections. The trail would have been difficult with just a backpack, but trying to carry a bike up there was an exercise in frustration and sheer willpower with branches catching handlebars and cleats slipping on rock. We caught up to Thunderbolt after a short time and it was nice to chat and take our minds off the badness. One advantage to doing it at night is we didn't have the extra challenge of the sun beating down on us while we pushed. Four kilometers took us two hours so to say it was slow going was an understatement.

Making sure the precious bikes and maps stay dry while we prepare to swim. Priorities.


We banked on emptying the legs on the bike as we wouldn't need them on the final paddle. Pulling into transition slightly ahead of Thunderbolt I had a wave of dread. I needed to go to the bathroom. And no, not to wee. There was no way I could sit in a boat for 3 hours and hold in what urgently needed to get out. Damn all those sandwiches. I begged off to the toilet block to also fill my Camelbak and then suffered the ultimate female dilemma - no toilet paper. In a scene which took me back to my old nightclubbing days, the woman in the stall next to me had her husband run to the men's and help us both out with supplies. The sisterhood is alive and well in the country town of Orbost. 

Unloaded, we hit the water about 200 metres behind Thunderbolt. You know how the story ends, but here's how it unfolded. Gary basically called me soft and implied I'd given up because we are not known as a paddling team. This is because I'm fully aware that at least one half of the team (the Tasmanian half) does almost zero training for this discipline except for the odd trainer session in the garage. That was enough for us to start closing the gap, while the boys tried to hang on in our wash. Yes, being slightly pissed off is a fine motivator. Once we'd caught up, sitting in the other team's slipstream make paddling about 50% easier, like drafting does in a bike racing. The first team to reach the checkpoint has the advantage as they create a gap while the second team punches their wrist bands into the CP sensor. Working hard to close the gap after the first water CP, we knew we couldn't keep hitting the CPs as the second team. The effort would blow us apart.

The next CP involved leaving the boats, trekking across a field, on an aquaduct where we spotted the CP flag - across a disgusting, brown canal in which something may have died recently. But almost-winning makes you do crazy things so we all jumped in, swam across, back, then headed back to the boats. The final run across the field was the only chance to get a gap and we took it. I have no idea where my leg speed came from and I knew I'd pay dearly for it later but we hit the water first and turned ourselves inside out for the next 6 kilometers to the final CP on a beach at the entrance to the bay. It, of course, required a sand run, which is usually how these races end. No wonder I have such painful memories of running on the beach. We punch the CP and ran back to the boats, passing Thunderbolt still making their way to the marker. Congratulations were given as they realised we would most likely hold our lead on the short paddle to the finish line. We actually extended it as I cracked the whip, adamant that the other team wouldn't give up until we'd finished. It's not often I hear Gary tell me to slow down and take it easy on the last part of a race.

 After a couple of now-famous near misses last year, it was more relief than elation crossing the line in first place. It was special doing it with a great team of guys. We bicker like siblings at times, but it's because we can and still look after each other and get the job done. The course was 220 kilometers of fun and challenge, although the heat ramped up the latter. It's not often you look forward to getting wet in ARs and collecting checkpoints across waterfall pools we were almost tempted to stay in a little longer. I heard a lot of reports of people suffering from the heat. But if anyone was going to suffer it was the Tasmanians. That we not only survived but managed to win, shows that functioning in extreme temperatures is possible by having strategies in place to look after yourself. I love this sport because the conditions - both hot and cold - are treated as just another 'feature'. There's no 'hot weather rule' in AR. You just deal with it. To those who vomited their way through - I salute you. 

Must have abs of steel to get a spot on this team.

Hugs all round!
Huge thank you to my team mates - you guys are amazing! Thanks for your never say die attitude and your freakish sense of direction. Thanks to Sergey and Maria of Adventure Junkies for another awesome event. We can't wait to come back for 2019. Thanks also to my supporters who make my racing possible:

Ride Mechanic
FC Sports and Events
Infinit Nutrition Australia
NS Dynamics
CEP Australia
Wild Earth Australia 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

WILDSIDE ADVENTURE RACE - CANBERRA

“If we had seen that at the time we would have put a few stitches in it.” One of the event staff was surveying the gash on my knee at the finish line. I was reclining on a pool lounge, falling asleep with a beer in one hand and a ham, cheese and tomato toasted sandwich in the other. There are a lot of rules in the ‘real world’ which don’t apply when you’re adventure racing. Getting standard medical attention is one of them. I’d felt the jab of a sharp branch at 2am while on the hike-from-hell as the third leg of the race would be known. But I was deathly cold and covered in thermals at the time and wouldn’t actually see the deep cut for another 12 hours when I undressed after being soaked in the pack-rafting leg. It looked clean-ish and I figured septicemia wouldn’t kick off in earnest for another couple of days so I didn’t bother about it. This is not meant to sound like some sort of foolish bravado. It’s just the point you get to in a 72 hour continuous race when you truly don’t care about most things.



Let me start by saying that I hated this event. I actually said this to the organiser who I had dreamed about punching in the face for most of the race. At the time I didn’t know he was the organiser as I was delirious and it was quite the faux pas. But like most of these events, the passing of time has mellowed my mood and I appreciate the landscapes I encountered and what we, as a team, achieved by making it to the end and ‘beating’ the course. For this event, just making it through to the finish line in Eaglehawk was a victory that many failed to realise. There will be debate about whether this is good for the sport of adventure racing. I empathise with those who took a week of leave from work and gave up weekends to prepare for this, and then found themselves lost, hungry and demoralised after the first day. But I would also not like to see AR tamed down to the point where anyone, regardless of competence, can make it to the finish line.

The 3.30am bus ride to Lake Eucumbene was uncalled for as we arrived an hour earlier than required. There’s half a night’s sleep missed and we hadn’t even started yet. Despite rumours of snow hikes at Kosciusko, we would be running around the lake which, at 30% capacity, was like a moonscape. I hadn’t run for 2 months with an ankle injury and a dodgy hamstring tendon, so starting with a 50km jog exploded my legs immediately. There was no route choice so there were several teams side-by-side which meant the pace was much higher than usual as no team wanted to let the others out of sight.

On to the mountain bikes, thank god, and I was immediately more chatty and comfortable. This is when the team starts loading me up with gear, like the team tent, until I become less chatty and comfortable. I’d only got my bike out of the box from my Swiss race to service the forks. I then ran out of time and my partner had to reassemble the bike before it got stuffed back in the box for this race. It took me a full hour of thinking ‘something feels weird’ to realise that there were an inch worth of spacers UNDER the stem which should have been on top. Feeling like I should have a shopping basket on the front for a leisurely Sunday jaunt it turned out to be a happy accident and the first time my back hasn’t ached from wearing a pack while riding. A more upright riding position is definitely worth considering.

The third leg: 50km trek, 10-16 hours. Or so the race book said. Look, I’m all for legs being difficult. But when you say the winning teams will do it in 10 hours and it turns into closer to 20, then you have to expect some flack.  Many teams ran out of food, although water was plentiful on the course if you had purification tablets. Personally, I packed the bare minimum of food – a mistake I’ll never make again. My team mates apparently packed a buffet but not wanting to leave them short, I went for a few hours without eating and hunger flatted badly. People, including other teams, were very generous with their extra rations, but everyone was also holding back and hiding snacks like concentration camp interns, not quite knowing how much longer the trek would last.



This was the pivotal leg. Do you go up the ridge or up the creek? After the abseil, the track petered out and we were told the going would be slow. But I have never encountered brush that thick or spiky so when we happened on the creek, it seemed a welcome relief and easier going. Rock-hopping was even pleasant for the first hour as we came across pretty waterfalls. By 2am it had got a lot less fun. There were many log jams to be climbed over, slippery rocks to be negotiated and walking in the creek bed was like a foot massage with a hammer. We estimated our progress at one whole kilometre per hour and that is not an exaggeration. Trying to skirt around a deep pool I lost a hand hold and fell into the water up to my chest wearing every item of clothing I had. Shivering my way to sunrise I’d almost completely lost the will to continue. There’s only so many times you can say “this is horse-shit” before your team mates get over hearing it too.

Nearly crying tears of joy, we left the creek at sunrise and crested the ridge for a magnificent view of the rocky summit and surrounds. We were reminded of the beauty and remoteness of this type of racing and felt like we were the only ones on earth…until we rounded the next corner and saw another team experiencing the same thing. Of all the infinite routes and times which could have been taken, it is spooky how often you run into people out there.

Over three days not every leg is memorable and it’s not my intention provide a blow by blow description of each stage. However you tend to remember what you were doing during the night hours when you’d traditionally been sleeping. Maybe because the nights seem to drag on while you fight the urge to slumber. Popping No Doze like tick-tacs only works for a while. The long blinks will come. The second night we spent on the least enjoyable mountain bike ride I’ve ever had. Another route choice – longer and flatter, or shorter with some climbs. We chose the latter and we chose wrong. The night consisted of rolling down hills then dismounting and walking out bikes up impossibly steep fire roads. At one point I almost fell backwards off the wall I was climbing and it was only my team mate reaching for my bike that kept me put. This went on for hours and at times I swore it was just the same four hills and we were going around in circles. At one point we descended into a field bordering a compound of satellite dishes lit up with flood lights. A voice over a loud speaker was making announcements, I assume, about the orientation of the dishes. I was waiting for a ‘release the hounds’ call for the four riders getting a little too close but it was very cool and I was congratulating the race crew for leading us down here. But then we realised we weren’t even supposed to be there and the checkpoint we were looking for was hours in another direction. As the navigators stopped to discuss amendments, I took to having four minute naps in the dirt. It’s amazing how effectively a bike helmet can function as a pillow.

By this time we realised that this race would go a day longer than expected. Do you get that? We didn’t underestimate by a few hours but a WHOLE DAY. Mentally that’s hard to get your head around. The temptation is to think “Oh, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe the rest of the legs will be shorter than we think”. But I consider that just delaying disappointment and it’s easier to take the medicine early and accept that I’m going to be spending one more night without sleep than planned. I’ll admit that I struggled more in the first two days than I’d done in any other race. I just didn’t have it mentally. There had been emotional upheaval in my non-racing life, I was carrying injuries so had no confidence in my body and went into the race feeling tired and burnt out. When that’s your starting point, putting yourself through an expedition length event is probably not going to lead anywhere good. But when the sun rose on the third day a Zen-like state had taken over. I stopped thinking about anything outside of the race and just moved forward. I had no other life. No place existed other than where I was right at that moment with my team mates.

That’s not to say I was in great shape. As we trekked the 12 km to the start of the pack raft section, I held on to a team mates back pack while I slept walking forward. I was technically just ‘resting my eyes’ but it’s interesting how much it helps. This is where I’ll reiterate the importance of foot care. DO NOT let your feet deteriorate. I’d totally stuffed up in this area by changing my tried and tested routine. The combination of Ride Mechanic Moonshine chamois cream and my CEP compression socks had proven their blister-free worth over many 24-48 hour races. But the socks were difficult to get off for longer races when changing socks is really necessary. So I’d opted for normal running socks. Due to the river sand getting into my shoes in the treks the friction had actually worn the poorer quality socks away so there were just bare threads remaining and my feet had been exfoliated for about 100 km. Walking was painful, running was agony.

The ice cold water of the Murrumbidgee River provided blessed relief for aching parts as we mounted the pack rafts. My knee pads had been misplaced in our haste to get gear packed into storage compartments so the sneaky submerged rock became my nemesis, ready to shatter my knee caps as I knelt on the thin raft floor. While tackling the rapid sections Jarad instructed me in the superman position, laying over the front of the boat while still paddling. We were making excellent headway and even started having ‘fun’. Boys being boys suddenly we were racing our other two team mates into rapids and playing dodgems with the boats. It’s all fun and games until someone ends up backwards in a rapid and flips their boat. The cold swim woke me up but Jarad suffered a broken rib and would wince in pain for the rest of the race. The mandatory helmets saved both our lives.



At the end of the paddle we had only completed half the legs, but they were the longer ones so we felt like we’d broken the back of the race. I’ll abbreviate a few of the remaining legs as they were mostly uninteresting aside from the fact that we were getting closer to the centre of Canberra and civilisation. The next trek was baking hot and hampered by the fact that Tom’s foot had fallen asleep paddling and he was limping through most of it. Mountain biking up to Mount Stromlo, site of the MTB World Cup and World Championships, brought back memories of where MTB really started for me back in 2007. Depressingly we never got to ride any of the plentiful single-track there during the race. Arriving pumped for our final paddle we were then delayed by two hours while the organisers tried to find our paddle bag which they had misplaced with all our gear. Thanks to Tod Vickery from Adventure 1 who shouted us some pizzas and a van to nap in while we waited.

On the final trek leg we were given a list of questions. The answers to which would be found at various landmarks in the centre of Canberra. Starting the urban rogaine not long after midnight I felt like I was back at school fulfilling the obligatory educational component of a field trip. It was surreal running (OK, briskly walking) through the deserted city streets. We proceeded to the War Memorial, which is definitely worth a look, to find out how many inscriptions were on the inside right-hand wall of the Vietnam memorial. 34. No, 33. Count again. Definitely 34. And try counting the flag poles on the lawn at Old Parliament house when you haven’t really slept for 65 hours. This was actually quite a fun activity and I know a lot more about Canberra than previously. But I challenge others to find the Bogong Moth sculptures in the dead of night. And a heads-up from the organisers might have been appreciated by some of the venues. Having four deranged people running around the war memorial yelling “have you found the gun yet” seemed to unsettle the lone security guard on duty.

The last leg was on mountain bike and apparently designed to break whatever spirit you had left by sending you over the tallest peaks in Canberra to the finish line. And break it did with me dreading every step my trashed feet had to take in stiff bike shoes up the unclimbable climbs. This was when team captain Kohler’s leadership skills came to the fore. Withholding the gory details of the impending route while providing encouragement to keep us going when the next wall of dirt appeared. I shed a few tears, not for the first time during the race. I find this strange as it does nothing to help the situation. It’s not a full-on sob which makes it hard to breathe and requires cessation of movement. Just the odd tear trickling down the cheek. Was it self-pity? That thought that I was hurting so much more than anyone else? After a number of these races I know that’s not true. Or maybe relief knowing that it would all be over soon.

We crossed the finish line in third place but were bumped up to second by the time adjustment from being delayed with our paddle bags, and the two hour penalty imposed on the Wild Earth team as they forgot some of their maps and were given replacements by the organisers. I was uneasy about that placing as, physically and tactically, we were the third best team. But as there were no prizes for second place it was merely pride on the line.

It’s taken me a while to work out what this race meant to me or how I had come out the other end. At times I thought this was my last race. The negative thoughts I was having meant I just wasn’t cut out for expedition racing. Aren’t you supposed to be a hard-arse to get through these things and spend the whole time going ‘hell yeah, bring it on’ and laughing in the face of adversity? All I had in my head was a list of excuses and reasons to give about why I couldn’t finish – work stress, relationship issues, injuries, bad weather. These were to blame for my poor performance. These were the things which had made me mentally and physically weaker than I ever remember being. But then the feeling on the third day when, despite all these things, I was still hanging in there. A feeling of invincibility. There’s nothing I can’t take. I’m in absolute rubbish form but I’m still here and I’m going to finish. This is what ultra-endurance events have over shorter events. Not everyone can be fast. But with preparation, I believe everyone can complete one of these things if they set their mind to it and are prepared to suffer through the bad times. (*For those who fell down on the navigation, I can’t help you. This remains a dark art to me and I’m so lucky to have fallen in with good map readers!)

I was recounting the experience to my sports psychologist the following week:
“So you know how I’m supposed to be doing 30 minutes of mindfulness practice every day? Well I may be falling short on that (because who the hell has half an hour to sit quietly and focus on their breathing??). But I did get at least 24 hours of being very ‘present in the moment’ and in touch with my bodily sensations so that’s effectively 48 days-worth of practice, right?”
He seemed sceptical. But the primary thought I have about the event: I needed that.

Thanks to my team mates – Jarad Kohler, Ian Franzke and Tom Chadbourne.
Thanks to my sponsors – Ride Mechanic, FC Sports & Events, NS Dynamics, CEP Australia, Infinit Nutrition Australia, JP Rutkowski & Co.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Swiss Epic

Arriving in Geneva airport after 30 hours of travel I received the news that only one of my two pieces of luggage had made it from Hobart. If my bike had missed the solitary daily connection from Abu Dhabi then I’d miss the mandatory bike check on the Sunday and forfeit Monday’s prologue at the Perskindol Swiss Epic. Luckily it was my clothes which had been delayed which, while not awesome, were easier to replace than a bike. Or at least they would have been had we not been in a tiny Swiss village on a Sunday when absolutely nothing was opened. With many kind offers from other racers to loan me kit, mine was eventually delivered at 2am the morning of the race start which was cutting it fairly fine.

Originally paired with my great Brisbane riding mate, Marto, we had signed up for the ‘Heaven’ package which included 5 star hotels with every manner of sauna and Jacuzzi, as well as a daily post-stage massage and fluffy white robes. I had never seen the point of those wanky hotels, but have now been educated. They are amazing. How I have survived 39 years without a daily lemon salt scrub in a steam room is a mystery. Unfortunately Marto did not get to share in the experience as he required shoulder surgery after almost ripping his arm of racing gravity enduro. Due to the Swiss Epic’s ‘no refunds’ policy, my partner, John, reluctantly (cough, cough) took Marto’s place.

We had entered the Flow event – 280km of riding with 7500m of vertical ascent and 15000 descent, made possible by neutral zones where we would be transported by bus or lift to a higher point for extra downhill fun. The traditional Epic of 350km with 12,000m of grovelling is available to those who really hate fun. It was easy to pick which event riders were doing by their bike setup. One hundred millimetre travel cross-country machines with ‘sneeze and they puncture’ narrow tyres versus 120-150mm forks with dropper posts and 2.4 inch wide knobbly rubber.

I’ve never paid much attention to things which can vastly change the capabilities of the same bike. A beefier front end and wider tyres can transform an XC bike to a more confident descender with a small weight penalty. This was the choice to be made. Lightweight for the still considerable climbing or a setup to make up time on the descents? The Flow race is the most balanced format I’ve ever completed between climbing and descending while the Epic still favours the skinny mountain goats.

Prologue – Grachen – 18km, +650m / -1150m

Warming up in the town we boarded a gondola and were deposited at 2100m. The Prologue course went straight up a climb to 2500m where someone had misplaced most of the oxygen. Gasping,  we caught a few of the riders who started before us in the time-trial and were nailing the downhill when the hydraulics in my rear brake took a short holiday. If you know anything about riding then you absolutely don’t want to be front-braking on a steep slope over wet tree roots. After a minute of furious pumping my brakes returned and we finished with a 15 second lead over a Belgian pair in the mixed category. We had passed them on the climbs but after they rocketed past us on the descents we knew we were in for six days of hot competition.

Not a bad warm up spot. Start of the prologue


That afternoon we retired to the spa room of the Gracherhof trying to work out the correct order of the stations. We settled for 40 C sauna, 60 C steam room and finished with an 87 C sauna to get the edges super crispy. In between we subjected ourselves to a cubicle which sprayed ice cold water from multiple jets doing our best Wim Hoff breathing.

Stage 1 – Grachen to Leukerbad -72kms, +1600m / -4050m

Having the advantage on the climbs we figured this was our day to make a good gap on second place. We were at breakfast at 6am for an 8am start. Our race issue bags would be transported between hotels as part of the organisation. It was difficult having so many options at the buffets and declining them (including champagne) in favour of race-performance options.

At the 15km point, while taking a sweeping right-hand corner, I was suddenly laying on the ground. Thinking my cleat had come out of my pedal I realised my whole pedal had come off the spindle. With no tech station until 62km I had no option but to leave the pedal attached to my shoe, slide it back on the spindle and try to ride holding it on with my adductor. This was semi-successful on the 10km climb but downright dangerous on the technical descents of which there were many. Quite a few times I’d be hanging over my rear wheel negotiating a steep section only to have my pedal slip off and end up with my tread massaging my chamois. Not wanting our race to be over on only the second day, I persevered until the neutral section where the mechanic fortunately had some new pedals and cleats for purchase. Buying in Swiss francs hurts but, to be honest, he could have charged much more to desperate racers. Not Chain Reaction prices but I've paid more at a local bike store.

47kms holding this on with my inner thigh. Not recommended.


Being attached to my bike for the last descent brought the insanity factor back down. The trails are very challenging though and I tripoded switchbacks and ran some sections. To only lose a minute to the Belgian team with all our issues was unbelievable.

We checked into our favourite hotel of the whole trip. Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes is a proper 5 star venue with a thermal spa and pool with the most unbelievably powerful massage jets. (NB: that may or may not be their intended purpose but the wattage on those babies will have your ITBs singing). Physiotherapy students perform massage duties at the hotels but their effectiveness is hit-and-miss. There’s only so many times you can say “you can go harder” before you surrender to a treatment better classified as relaxation. I did have a karate black-belt find a spot in my butt that had me tapping out though.

Stage 2 – Leukerbad – 52km, +1050m / -3550m

A circuit of the Leukerbad surrounds was on Wednesday’s agenda. With minimal climbing we knew we’d lose time on the general classification so we focused on staying upright and crossing fingers for no more mechanical issues. John did get a small puncture but after a minute of doing the Stan’s shuffle, it sealed and we continued. On the whole the course was marked well but a small lapse in concentration and it was easy to take the wrong track. One left arrow means turn. Two means pull on the handbrake and turn HARD. We had a few overshoots and a couple of WTFs in dead end streets but it was a common story for everyone.

The last uplift took us to 2300m. We hadn’t packed jackets as it was relatively warm in the valley. Now it was snowing at the peak and John wrestled two garbage bags from a reluctant feed-zone attendant to use as ponchos. Many people admired our stylish threads which were effective on the chilly descent but not particularly aero.

It was at the summit that we encountered the gluggy mud typical of agricultural regions of Switzerland. It contained a fair portion of cow manure which you could really taste when if flicked up into your mouth. John deeply regretted his choice of narrow profile Rocket Ron as a front tyre and made a beefier purchase after the stage. Sliding our way down the root-littered mud chutes, it was another second place for us, now 1.5 minutes behind the leaders overall.

Stage 3 – Leukerbad – 35k, +800 / -1800

Due to the forecast inclement weather, this stage was modified from the original plan. Fresh snow fell daily on the mountain tops and with torrential rain on the way a portion of the climb was taken out while we used a lower uplift to avoid the worst of the weather. We celebrated our first mechanical-free day. While it was cold at the start, we missed the opening of the heavens which caught out slower riders.

Before the event I was unsure about the format which effectively broke the day into two to three stages with untimed uplifts between. Rather than making it easier, it was balls-out racing the whole time, like doing multiple XCO races after sitting down just long enough for the legs to completely cool and stiffen up. We rode the shuttles with the same crew each day and this formed the main social opportunity. The top three mens and mixed pairs swapped stories and trash talked and hung out a little too long in the feed zones. It was easy to overdo the snacks so everyone’s pants were little tighter at the end of the week. This was a very different vibe to the ‘must kill’ competition of more pure endurance racing formats. We surprisingly made up time on this stage and now sat only 15 seconds adrift of the green leaders jersey.

Leukerbad is surrounded by stunning bare rock mountains. After significant rainfall these become adorned with numerous waterfalls streaming down. Soaking in the heated pool admiring the show was a special afternoon.

Thermal pool at Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes. I'll just leave this here...


Stage 4 – Leukerbad to Zermatt – 65km, +1300m/-3250m

Any stage with over 1000m of climbing represented an chance to put time into our more enduro skilled competition. We went out hard on the first 8km ascent only to find that the Belgians had learned to climb overnight. There must have been something special in the bircher muesli that morning as the gap at the start of the downhill was not what we hoped it would be.

We left the wet trails of Leukerbad and entered the dry, rocky terrain on the way to Zermatt. It was the coldest day by far but brilliantly clear and sunny. Thankfully this coincided with the only open chairlift of the event. As each rider had to balance their bike on the crossbar of their lift it was slow progress up the mountain with the lift stopping every few metres to let another rider get into position. It was almost pleasant swinging high up in a sunny spot but when I moved into the shade of a tree or rock I was close to hypothermia.

The previous day we had battled cows and goats on the trail. Today it was hikers, strewn across the path. Although there were course arrows, there were no signs warning people of the race and bikes screaming down the trails. Quite a few walkers were sent diving into bushes with their hiking poles.

If the Belgians had learned to climb, we had improved our descending and moved into the lead by 30 seconds. While the other race categories were almost settled by the last day, ours was still a tight battle. With everything on the line and needing our bodies to be at 110% the next day we did what any Flow rider would do – sank some Belgian beers and checked out our hotel amenities. The Zermatterhof is regarded as the top hotel in Zermatt. It even offers the chance to be collected from the train station by a white horse-drawn carriage. I’ve no idea where the bike boxes would go though.

The town is car-free save for the small electric taxis ferrying people around. Ambling the streets browsing shops we couldn’t possibly afford to buy from was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Stage winners a few times. Swiss army knives and cheese. What else?


Stage 5 – Zermatt – 36km, +1250m / -1900m

On paper this stage suited our strength. It started with a 14km climb which began at a friendly gradient before a horrific final 4km on gravel which saw me and many racers over-geared. The last kilometres ticked over at glacial pace but this was our only chance to get a gap. With 25km done at the solitary neutral transfer we had a 4 minute lead for the day. It seemed the win was sealed and we could be able to ride the remaining descent relaxed.

View from the top of the last descent into Zermatt. We were lucky enough to get a cloudless day. Great move by the organisers having this in the untimed zone.


We caught the tube-train, buried deep inside the mountain to the top. Luckily we had stopped for photos the previous day as the Matterhorn was obscured by cloud. Some final group photos with our racing companions, a ‘see you at the bottom’ and we were on our way. We weren’t far into the sharp rocky descent when I heard the heart-breaking hiss of liquid latex escaping from my rear tyre. Praying it would seal we weren’t that lucky. We set about putting a tube in, slowed by cold fingers and recalcitrant CO2 cannisters and pumps. Four minutes was enough to cover the time the Belgians would chop out of us on the descent but possibly not a puncture as well. With my tyre pumped up to 35 PSI I then had to pick smooth lines around the sharp edged drains on the trail. A second flat would see us entirely out of the running. There was a lot more up-hill than we counted on and our legs were blown after the morning’s effort. Once on the flat John killed himself while I tried to hang on (a consistent theme of the week). Unfortunately we’d lost too much time with the puncture and missed the overall win by a mere 33 seconds after 6 days of racing.

Honestly, it was an absolutely shite way to lose. But we weren’t the only ones with bad luck. The top UCI women’s team had multiple flats and a cracked rim during the event and kept putting out their best every day trying, unsuccessfully, to make the time back. Racing is unpredictable and you can never give up as luck can go either way.

I’m stoked with how we handled the challenges during the week. Something learned from adventure racing when things are never perfect. The trails and the event were incredible. It was everything a Swiss race promises to be and we’re returning to Australia with that adjusted perception of ‘steep’ one gets after riding in the alps. At the post-race dinner we were informed of the event’s sale to the Ironman company along with the Cape Epic and The Pioneer. There were some predictably apathetic responses to the news. But hopefully the formula doesn’t change too much as they’ve almost nailed it. Certainly for the Flow, the balance of tarmac, 4WD track and singletrail was spot on. The towns we visited with quintessentially Swiss while having all we needed outside the race.

One of the few times I got to ride at the front. Only for the cameras.


The mixed Flow category was never going to involve racing for sheep stations. However it was great to get prizes reflecting the local area. The engraved Swiss Army knife, Victorinox multi-tool and Scott helmet are all welcome additions to the kit. The four kilos of cheese…hmm, we’ll find a space for it.

We flew Etihad into Geneva which is an easy train and bus ride to Grachen and Zermatt. It’s worth getting there a day or two early, especially if your luggage doesn’t arrive with you. Thanks to Flight Centre Sport Events for the travel organisation and race jerseys. Also to Virgin Australia for sorting out my extra baggage allowance via Twitter. Great service.

As always my sponsors:

Fuelled by Infinit Australia
Lubricated by Ride Mechanic (bike and body lube)
Suspension by NS Dynamics
Recovery compression gear by CEP Australia
Fitness training by Bike Rite

Sunday, August 6, 2017

HELL'S BELLS 2017 - GOLDEN BEACH, QLD

Nothing is ever certain in racing, or in life. Until you actually cross the finish line the event isn't won. We have all heard of stories of 'choking' athletes who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. While I wouldn't say our team choked, we were probably mentally sinking celebration beers while having two checkpoints (CPs) to go and almost an hour buffer to the next team. To not win from that point was quite crushing.

In my pre-race blog I'd laid out my excuses early: dodgy ankles and shoulder. My team mates contributed with their own stories of life getting in the way of training meaning we all felt less than prepared for the event. Tactically we agreed we wouldn't be able to muscle our way on to the podium so we would have to be careful with the navigation and wily with route choice. While marking the maps at a cafe on race morning, we identified some dicey shortcuts. These were opportunities to save chunks of time but we weren't sure how feasible they were until we were on course. There were a lot of checkpoints for such a short race (24 hours although we budgeted on being done in around 16) so our navigators would be working hard.

An 11.30am start was quite luxurious. No crazy early wake up. No stressing about the timing of the pre-race dump (racers: you know what I'm talking about). We started running down the beach footpath, boogie boards in hand to the first CP and then into the warm, clear waters of Pumistone Passage to cross to the sandy headland. While I'd mocked Tom for bringing a $15 inflatable lilo it was a stroke of genius and easily faster than other craft. It was also deflatable with the mandatory pocket knife for the subsequent 20km sand run. I'd made the error of failing to test equipment and kept slipping off my board due to wearing a life vest. This was one of several things I half-assed including using the wrong lube for my feet and putting my cycling knicks in the wrong transition box. Both of these mistakes had abrasive results.

We swapped the lead several times with series leaders Thunderbolt and came into transition slightly ahead for the kayak leg. Course designer Dave Schloss was relaying the message, via jet-ski, that several CPs had been dropped from this leg. Leading for most of the way the field came back together in the shoe-sucking mud while collecting a CP at the edge of the mangroves. We paddled with Thunderbolt long enough for Leo Theoharis to completely massacre the delivery of a joke I just told him. While swapping banter we could have felt we were friends out for a splash on a glorious Saturday afternoon if not for the pace being set. I'd done almost no ski training since moving to chilly Hobart and it told. My inflamed bicep tendon was now on fire with the effort. For those who haven't had this injury, imagine that every time you moved your arm to paddle, run or lift your bike, someone stabbed you in the front of the shoulder.



I love races where all the wet activities are finished before sunset. Putting on a dry top at transition, I looked forward to remaining that way for the rest of the race. However I think I spent more time wet during the mountain bike leg as there were several crossings of water ways necessitating carrying bikes overhead. There's nothing like eating a wet sandwich and wondering if it got drowned in that pristine creek or the manky drain we waded through.

My feet were blistered and being perpetually wet aggravated them. When we came to the radical shortcut across Coochin Creek with our bikes, I was very resistant to wading across especially as it looked deep. A couple of locals in a small boat assured us it was only buttock high though and we pulled off the move which would have been a race winner...had we actually won, of course. It was a glimpse of Kohlar brilliance. After that it was difficult to know our position in the field. We kept coming up on teams doing the shorter Fairy Bells event, never knowing if it was Thunderbolt who had pulled some good move of their own. It was actually nice not knowing and getting through the course at our own pace.

I congratulate the organisers, Wild & Co, for including a good portion of single-track. Using the MTB trails around Ewan Maddock Dam added some fun and flow to the usual fireroad smash. Given the terrain was mostly flat I was afraid it would make the event boring. But I was kept well entertained and the time went quickly. Our navigation was not flawless, but they were five minute pauses, not 30 minute forays in the wrong direction.



Transitioning from MTB to trail running I went from feeling very comfortable to next-level hurt. Blisters from sand running, no confidence in my ankles on technical sections and a limp, useless right arm left me frustrated and snappy. Team mates offering sugar, intimating I was 'hangry', only added to tension as if they'd asked "have you got PMS?". The going was tough in some sections. When your captain regards bashing through Lantana as a welcome relief to being torn apart by Wait-a-While vines, things are not good.

We emerged from the forest bleeding with large welts all over our exposed skin. Despite me dragging the chain on this leg we got through the trek efficiently and on to the final MTB leg. Not the last time I thought we were only a few hours of riding away from a race finish it ended horribly. There may be a pattern and I should have seen a red flag when we were shadowed by Adventure 1 director, Tod, hinting from the car that we had a good lead and as long as we did not make a huge error we would win.

Clambering over a fence into a field we took the appropriate bearing and started looking for the clue 'fence corner'. There were more cows than corners and after riding up and down for the best part of an hour hands were thrown in the air. We didn't know where we were on the map. In a display of common sense, Jason suggested heading East along the fence we could see in case our bearing was 'off'. In fact we'd climbed over the wrong fence at the start so there was no chance of our bearing ever being 'on'. Corners became more plentiful and we located the CP just in time for Thunderbolt to catch and pass us like a freight train. Demoralising doesn't even describe it.

Resigned to second place, again, we collected the last CP and rolled into HQ to muted celebrations. It's telling when your competition keep saying 'sorry' for winning. I heard some people say we deserved to win. If we did, we would have won. Barring and unforeseen event involving third part intervention, I think you're responsible for most of what happens to you. Mechanical - you should have prepared your equipment better. Crash - you need to up-skill. Lose and hour on a CP - navigate better. We will have the next week to rue what could have been while we pick Wait-a-While splinters out of our hands.

Thanks to the organisers for a great event with simple logistics. Why more races don't use the MTB legs to move the bikes around I don't know. Thanks to my team mates - Jarad Kohlar, Tom Chadbourne and Jason Rutkowski. Outstanding effort guys. Hopefully I'll be in better shape, and mood, next race. And thanks to my sponsors:

Ride Mechanic - Bike and body lube
Infinit Nutrition - all your energy needs
NS Dynamics - suspension servicing
Flight Centre Sport events - adventure and event travel
CEP Australia - compression socks for competition and recovery

Thursday, August 3, 2017

RETURN - One athlete: slightly damaged

What to write about when you really don't feel like you have anything to say? The pre-race blog is not something I've done as a matter of habit. I don't particularly like talking about something in the future, preferring to shut up, do the job then tell you all about it afterwards. The upcoming event, Hell's Bells, isn't one I've done before either so I can't refer to previous events to compare. From memory some former team mates ended up with hypothermia a couple of years ago so perhaps my expectation of enjoying the relatively warm Queensland winter is destined for disappointment? As local AR legend Dave Schloss is setting the course I know it will be challenging but fun which is the most you can hope for in racing. When 'boogie board' is listed as mandatory equipment, this perks the interest.

I'm a little depressed at the lack of racing opportunities in Hobart. Apart from some cyclo-cross there hasn't been much on and, try as I might, I just can't get excited about racing around a field. That said, I am missing a Gravity enduro race 8 minutes from my door step this weekend. It's a drought or a flood. The question on everyone's lips is "how are you handling the cold?". I've actually ceased to notice it. Or, at least, I'm no colder now than I was in April. While out running the North South track, I'd taken off my thermal and tied it around my waist. Comfortably enjoying the contrast of inner warmth with the briskness of the air I checked my Garmin - 1.5 degrees. Righto.

The next question would be "who are you racing with?". Fair call as I seem to be changing team mates like underwear but this has more to do with availability than lack of loyalty. Due to the Adventure 1 series cap of 7 team members throughout the year, tactics also play a part. After racing X Marathon with Peak Adventure the team has reached its 'guest appearance' limit so I'll be joining Jarad, Tom and Jason for Peak Adventure - JP Rutkowski.

And form? Ahem...Normal protocol is to act strong when you're weak which means you definitely don't talk about any chinks you have in your physiological armour. I've never been a rule-follower though so I'll reveal I don't think I've ever gone into a race this battered. After badly spraining my right ankle several weeks ago I started back running too early, inflaming the left ankle due to the pronounced limp I still had. Then focused so much on avoiding pain in the left, I went over again on the right ankle last week.

But that's fine because it takes my mind off the screaming case of biceps tendon inflammation I've developed from, wait for it, carrying a water bottle. Yes, that's right. Apparently holding 600g of fluid in your hand and performing the small circles with your upper limbs which accompany the running action, for 3 hours, is devastating for a tendon. And yet I can go over the bars at high speed on the mountain bike and brush myself off without a scratch. Why does running hate me so much?? Dealing with non-perfect conditions is just part of being an athlete and challenging yourself. I've been in this situation so many times my over-riding thought is "it could still turn out OK". And it often does.

It's a little isolating being at the extreme end of the country. The community here are super friendly and welcoming, but I've realised that racing constitutes a huge part of my social life, which I'm sure it does for most people. It's probably what drives participation more than anything. When we're doing a multi-day race people talk about 'getting back to the real world'. I protest - the racing is the real world! The rest of the world is what doesn't feel real sometimes. Now that's deep. And I swore this was going to be a light-hearted piece. Doh. As Hell's Bells is a shorter event (perhaps 16 hours which is practically a sprint these days) I doubt Middle Eastern peace will be solved while we're out there. But there's still enough time to hang shit on each other, have some laughs and overdose on ham and cheese scrolls.

So frosty!

Monday, June 12, 2017

GEOQUEST 2017- SAWTELL

I constantly question the wisdom of outlaying large sums of money on adventure races. Compared to mountain bike races, the entry fees seem high for the format and duration of some events. Geoquest is certainly at the higher end of entry fees, however my ongoing gripe with this race is the supported format requiring teams to supply their own crew to transport gear between checkpoints. Isn’t this format hopelessly outdated? Relying on friends and family to give up a long weekend to indulge our selfish hobby wears thin and hardly endears adventure racing to long suffering spouses. That said many crews turn up each year to sit in transition areas (TAs) offering smiles and hot drinks to weary races at midnight. It's also one of the few events where racers must provide their own boats and the hire costs, depending on how flash and fast you want to go, are not inconsiderable. Add on accommodation for the whole crew, flights and car hire - a package tour to Fiji to sip Mojitos by the pool is looking like a great alternative.

Despite this, I found myself standing at Coffs harbour in the sideways rain, freezing my ass off waiting for the delayed start of the highly modified and shortened 2017 edition of Geoquest. This is my third time at this event and the curse of the weather gods continues. Each year we've had a changed or cancelled ocean paddle which begs the question as to why we keep trying to have them. This year our team decided on fast boats as we planned to have a good crack at the win. Fast also means highly unstable and in the squally conditions this would be challenging. The initial ocean paddle from Sawtell had been cancelled and Plan B was a few laps of Coffs Harbour as a token offering to appease said angry gods and justify some teams driving 16 hours with just so they could have boats at the event.

Finally underway after a passing storm the boys, John and Ray, cleared the breakers while Gary and I were pummelled repeatedly in the surf. It’s not until I’m in such a position that I really respect the power of the ocean.  I’ll admit – I was barely controlling the urge to run back to shore and pull the pin on the whole affair.  After several attempts and boats to the head (OK I now see why we have to wear helmets for ocean legs), we remounted and quickly worked our way towards the front. The boys were wrestling with their ski and the best they could say about it was that it was easy to get BACK into. We completed our three laps of the harbour but were confused when we saw all the teams heading back in to shore. We found out later that the paddle had been cancelled shortly after we had begun, but the race was not restarted meaning that teams that were behind us were now ahead of us having not completed the whole course.  We hoped the results would be adjusted at the end to account for this as this seemed like the fair thing to do.


Some interesting techniques for a shore landing

The following beach run impressed on us that the torrential rain was set to accompany racers through the whole weekend. Having done some wet ARs I could only be thankful it wasn't also cold. The conditions were actually perfect as the temperature stayed constant throughout, as did my wardrobe. I wore the same race kit and thermal for 16+ hours only augmenting with a windproof jacket at night. Sure, the rain was irritating. But a race where you're alternately too hot and too cold necessitating frequent costume changes really gets my goat.

On to the bikes and we picked up places quickly, passing Peak Adventure fixing a broken chain and joining race leaders Thunderbolt just before transition. Unfortunately we'd been too fast for our support crew and after waiting for 5 minutes at the next TA we decided to do the 8k foot orienteering in our bike shoes rather than risk losing more time. There's nothing quite like running on a hard-pack surface in $400 stiff carbon soles to really work the calves. By the end of the leg it felt like all the bones in my feet had been broken. To see the leaders leaving transition just ahead of us and actually passing PA during the OT was unbelievable. I can only put it down to our nav team being on fire. This was probably my favourite moment of our race. We didn't get hung up on the problem. We focused on a solution, got to work, and in the end it was approximately OK. It was approached with the same optimistic sarcasm that has become characteristic of great teams I've been in.
Gary: "Running in bike shoes is awesome! I'm never bringing running shoes again".
And think of the time we saved at the next TA not changing shoes. What it lacked in comfort it made up for in efficiency.

Our next bike leg played to our strengths as we were unperturbed in the muddy conditions. Nailing a slick, steep descent while others were walking or crashing in the bushes we went into the lead just on sunset. Unfortunately Gary must have voided his seat warranty as it fell off toward the end of the ride.  Our support crew were tasked with trying to source a new one at 9pm on a Saturday night. Their alternate plan was to gaffa tape a running shoe to the top of the seatpost which I would have been interested to see trialled. Amazingly they came through with the goods with assistance from one of the half course teams. Heading out on the run leg, scaling the same muddy chute we'd just ridden down, involved several backward slides and grabbing on to any tussock of grass or embedded rock I could find. It crossed my mind that Craig Bycroft had planned it like this as it seemed characteristic of his course design. However I dismissed the possibility that he'd been able to arrange the unseasonal monsoon. The descents on foot were akin to skiing and we experimented with several different styles while trying to avoid knocking our team mates down like skittles.

We were making good progress but came unstuck with some navigation, second guessed ourselves, stopped in the forest pondering for a while and then back tracked. It was enough for Thunderbolt to catch us and then we both chose the wrong hellish water course to climb up and down which cost at least 20 minutes. Once we'd found the correct CP, we'd been joined by Peak Adventure and BMX bandits. It's quite disheartening when you've had a lead then suddenly it's evaporated. The legs start to feel heavier and everything suddenly hurts more. Having such a big group also leads to group-think and mistakes because everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing instead of looking at the map. We fixed that by breaking off from the crowd and going totally the wrong way to the bottom of a hill then having to climb back out by which time all the other teams had gone. You can thank us later guys (Thunderbolt actually did).

I neglected to mention the archery challenge. Probably because I sucked at it and it was impeding my path to more food at the TA

Fatigue was setting in, not because it was late but because the race had been so fast. Flood warnings had forced organisers to remove the remaining paddle legs and a MTB leg had been cancelled to appease the single-track fairies in the wet weather. A short course meant higher speeds and it certainly didn't feel like the relaxed pace of previous races which went for 24+ hours. We would be home well in time for breakfast. A few more mistakes on navigation, a missed fire-road and we were finally back at TA. Insert non-descript mountain bike leg here and we were on the run leg to the finish line. Our legs and feet were blown from our bike-shoe hike and now 12km of sand running stood between us and the end of pain. Unfortunately we also stood between BMX bandits and 3rd place so instead of a comfortable shuffle we had to push with every ounce of remaining energy as they pursued us like I planned to pursue a steak when this was all over.

My hip flexors and adductors were agony and the monotonous running was like being stabbed in the groin for 2 hours. I wanted a break from it. A hill to walk up, some rocks to climb. Anything. But there was only the sand which, thank Christ, was wet from the outgoing tide. We were encouraged by the words of our team captain - "They're just behind us. Run you bastards! "

Do you remember that scene in Lord of the rings when Liv Tyler has to get across the river with Frodo before the ghouls got them? Well that was us making it to the river mouth at 1am for a swim across to the finish line in Sawtell. The strong tide meant running 300m upstream and hoping that was enough buffer before you were sucked out to sea. Not a great swimmer at the best of times, when I'm fully dressed wearing a backpack and gloves I'm bloody hopeless. I managed to flail about enough to make it across though and we crossed under the inflatable arch in third place.

Imagine this at 1am - that was us. We were in phantom mode and weren't captured in a single photo during the race. It's like it never happened. My feet say differently though.

It was bittersweet. We'd made the podium but knew exactly where a better placing had been lost. We all agreed that it's the hardest we'd been pushed in one of these events and that we were completely buckled. The close racing had added a new dimension and really brought us to the limits of what we were willing to tolerate. I liked it. This partially compensated for the lack of technical elements in the 2017 course in terms of off-track check points. Not that I’d ever wish to do the Punchbowl Rogaine of Geo 2016 again, but I did yearn for a little more bush-bashing than we had this year. Signed fire-roads made some parts as adventurous as reading a Refidex.

Usually, my justification for the expense of racing is the opportunity to be taken on a journey of an area by the race and experience the best the region has to offer. This time, the course seemed a blur at race speed and we didn’t even manage the usual banter as we were too busy gasping for air. That time at 3am when you start to discuss the big issues and examine the meaning of life during some lengthy hike or river paddle – we were already finished and in bed. On the whole I was left…unsatisfied. Still (metaphorically) hungry. Which is a shame because I have enjoyed this event in the past.

It must be hell to be a race organiser at the mercy of climatic conditions. I believe the set course the Geocentric crew had planned would have been kick-ass. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a plan B so when the heavens opened there were few options left to them besides cancelling the affected courses. The fact that the paddle was declared null and void during the event and no time adjustments were made left a bad taste for a lot of racers, not just those in the hunt for a podium. Teams set themselves appropriate goals of top half of the field, beating their mates or just ‘not last’. To have their placing affected by an abandoning of the basic concepts of racing – that everyone start from the same position and complete the same length course – I think disappointed many. There is a big push to have race referees introduced into events like this. They were plentiful in previous races I’ve done, especially in China. Although we’re not racing for sheep stations, the essence of sport is to have consistent rules for all to ensure fairness. I’d definitely like to see a referee system implemented in the near future.

Thanks to our support crew Mark and Jeremy. You guys went beyond the call of duty. The chicken rolls were the best things I never knew I wanted. The team – Gary, John and Ray – I know you gave your all and it was a pleasure to suffer with you again.

Thanks to my supporters:


Flight Centre Sport & Events
Ride Mechanic
CEP Australia
Infinit Nutrition
NS Dynamics
Tiger Adventure

Monday, May 29, 2017

WENG'AN OUTDOOR CHALLENGE, CHINA - 3 DAY STAGE ADVENTURE RACE

There’s a phrase that describes our team’s race in Weng’an, China, and it rhymes with cluster-duck. For those who don’t move in adventure-race circles: The Chinese Mountaineering Association have been holding a series of big money teams races in various locations for a number of years. To sweeten the deal for athletes, they throw in some money to partially cover travel expenses and hotel accommodation and meals are included in the modest entry fee. Unlike the ARs I’ve been doing recently, these are stage races, with no map-and-compass navigation, which means they are very fast and you get to sleep in a nice hotel every night instead of taking 20 min power naps by the side of the trail. They attract a lot of multisport and off-road triathlon types who are looking for a way to make a living out of the sport.

Entry is very restricted so a team captain will generally sign up, pay the entry fee and then hope like hell they can put a team together for each race. Failure to field a team means losing $1000 race fee and deposit so there are always messages and emails coming around about joining this team or that as people get injured or very sick of rice and noodles. This time I was invited by a rider who knew me from The Hell of the Marianas road race I did in Micronesia many years ago. I would be racing for Vladivostok Adventure Team from Russia for the three-day Weng’an Outdoor Challenge.

As it turned out we were 50% Russian with a Hungarian/American and me. We all assembled at Weng’an which is like a Vegas in the midst of rice paddies. It’s my second time in China and I realise what a large, diverse country it is. It’s also permanently under construction so everything is dusty and dirty while buildings continue to seemly spring up overnight where once there was only farmland. Three-wheel tuk-tuk style vehicles share the road with new Audis. Gleaming buildings with all the modern conveniences dominate the skyline with 10 minutes down the road a man plows a field with an ox.  The surroundings were luminous green with water-hungry crops like tea and rice. This should have been a hint as to the regularity of rainfall in the area which we would experience first-hand. Mixed with the soft, fertile soils it would be a farmers dream and a racer’s nightmare.



I’d like to be able to tell you all the towns we started and finished stages at, but the guide book is all in Chinese and I couldn’t get Google Maps, because…China. They all started to look the same – run down, dominated by concrete and populated by builders, street stall workers and people just ambling along the highway, oblivious to the heavy vehicles weaving around them recklessly. Driving here is a reality TV show just waiting to be made. A competitor remarked that the cities looked more attractive at night when the darkness covered the dust and the neon lights illuminated every building. While Europe has its church bells, China has fireworks, although not on any discernible schedule. I complained that 7am was a little early for fireworks but I have to admit I’m not up on cracker-protocol.

Dan, Alexey and Aleksander


DAY 1 – 7KM RUN – 42KM MTB – 18KM RUN – 90m ROPES

The first day of competition would be logistically the easiest with only a run-MTB-run stage. We were bused to the start line to find it pouring with rain and much colder than the tropical conditions I’d been expecting. As is customary for these events there are ‘cultural activities’ and the first run incorporated a 20kg basket carry – the kind the farmers use to carry picked tea and, on occasion, children. With two baskets per team we set off with the guys wearing them like backpacks and the remaining two team members running behind, lifting the basket bottoms trying to take some weight off their shoulders. Three kilometres of this and quads were buckling. The rest of the run was on the road and I was being pushed along by my faster team mates. It is amazing how much this helps as does being towed with a lead around the waist. For females these races are often about being dragged across a country. For some males too, depending on who is feeling strong on the day.

Basket practice gets the thumbs-up


This day set the tone for the race – it would be very steep with epic mud and substantial hike-a-bike sections. While I was comfortable with mud-riding, it was the wet concrete which was the surprise danger and I found myself have a lay-down after relying on traction which just wasn’t there. Clearly, the Chinese standard for flooring doesn’t put a huge emphasis on safety and they seem to be fond of the faux marble look which is like ice when wet. While we were out in the remote wilds during stages of the race, there was a fair portion which was on road. Running downhill on concrete while being towed had my shins complaining loudly. After watching some of the better runners pass us, I have finally learned the ‘windmill arms’ technique which is about flailing the upper limbs to keep balance and running as if you’re on the flat. Potential for broken arm – high.

We made up three to four places in the MTB section but then lost some when Dan sprained his ankle on a technical run then hunger-flatted in the last 5 km. In the midst of the run we had a ropes section across a river. It’s only just occurred to me why they call it a flying-fox. The proper technique is to lay back in the harness with your head upside down while pulling yourself across. Not a huge fan of heights this reverse view did make it less intimidating.

Contemplating two more days of flat out racing after 5 hours was difficult. But we stuffed ourselves with sugary Chinese breads at the finish line and vast quantities of rice later at the hotel. Not having the capacity to get many photos of the race, my attentions were focused on capturing the weird and wonderful culinary delights of the region. Pumpkin with cake sprinkles, chickens feet, ducks tongue and, my personal favourite, spiced ass meat. I cannot recommend any of them and will content myself with the bastardised version of Chinese food we have back in Australia. By the end of the week we were all craving non-rice carbs and ‘meat you can trust’ as one competitor put it. Each day I was awoken by the previous night’s food making a quick exit from my body which made it difficult to keep the energy levels up.

Pumpkin - because sprinkles shouldn't be just for cakes..?!


DAY 2 – 24K MTB – 18KM BIATHLON – 27KM KAYAK – 11KM RUN

Day two was dominated by a 27km kayak leg. That’s a long way in regular terms but when paddling crap race-provided plastic boats it was going to be a 3 hour plus affair. The guys had been using plastic paddles in previous races which appalled me. I’d fallen into AR with a crowd of very proficient oarsmen who wouldn’t be seen dead with anything other than a carbon blade designed to pull as efficiently as possible. As China is the home of carbon some local contacts were made and two new paddles arrive the afternoon before they were required. The timing just couldn’t have been better.

In retrospect, there wasn’t a paddle in the world which would have saved our team on this leg. When I’m the strongest paddler of the group then things are dire indeed. While Aleksander was obviously a strong guy he had no technique. He also had no English which made giving instructions futile. Dan’s first time in a boat was at the previous week’s race in Taishun where he was paired with a very strong male paddler which covers up a world of deficiencies. I gave him the few tips I’d learned over the past year which is hilarious considering how bad I am relative to the guys I normally compete with. After placing 13th the previous day with some issues, it was disheartening to record the slowest time out of the entire field for the kayak. Even the Chinese teams beat us and they are notoriously bad paddlers.




These photos are ripped from Google as we couldn't take photos from the race. They may or may not be of the actual region but it's pretty close to what it looked like! Weng'an river...maybe.


One discipline which afforded some novelty on this day was the biathlon. Although I was desperately hoping there would be some shooting involved, it consisted of taking two bikes between four team members. Two riders would go about 500 metres ahead of the runners, drop the bikes on the ground and start running. The runners would then pick up the bikes and overtake the front runners in an 18 kilometre game of leap-frog. The key was to look out for your bike. A couple of teams ended up with three runners asking each other “where is the bike?” only to discover it was still at the top of the hill.

At eight hours the day had taken about an hour longer than anticipated, due to the time lost on the kayak leg. The guys were also not so quick on the bike descents which was our main opportunity to make up time. There’s no point having one person who is a highly skilled rider if they have to wait at the bottom of each hill. In 18 hours of racing I saw Aleksander early-apex every single corner but to his credit, he didn’t hold back on the descents. A few times I passed him crashed in the bushes but he waved me on with a yell of “Go! Go!”. We had started the day with a ten minute penalty as one of the team forgot his race bib so team morale was not high.

DAY 3 – 10KM RUN – 12KM KAYAK – 180M ABSEIL – 6KM RUN – 27KM MTB – 4KM GPS NAVIGATION

The final day of competition arrived and we were just hoping to get to the finish in one piece. Being so late to finish the previous day meant less time to get back, eat and pack our tubs for the next day’s transitions. It’s vital to get everything you need in the right tub otherwise you risk having to do a run leg in your bike shoes if you get it wrong. This day’s stage required one team member to abseil off Jiangjiehe Bridge, the 33rd highest bridge in the world at 256m.  Alexey was a reasonable runner who could get to the top fairly quickly and was the only one with real abseil experience so he volunteered to go. This meant having to pick up his bike helmet earlier than everyone else along with his harness. Two minutes before the stage start we realised he had put his helmet in the wrong transition box and would not be permitted to abseil if he couldn’t find a replacement. Our start time came and we took off running. Alexey disappeared for a few minutes and then caught up after procuring a helmet from a construction worker along the road side. It could only happen in China. I continue to be impressed by how friendly and helpful the locals are. I don’t know why I assumed it would be contrary, but even the humble farmer tending his crop was very keen to yell out when we were going the wrong way and point us back on track. Amazing when there’s little chance he could know what we were doing, other than seeing people dressed in the same bibs also running around his field.

The view we got approaching the Jiangjiehe Bridge for the abseil


Most of the day was spent on the road and our less technically competent team performed better. Once we got to the paddle we were back to losing large amounts of time. As we were waiting for the abseil to be completed I gave Dan some paddling lessons under the bridge. There were many boats waiting for the team members and we floated around relaxing and taking in the incredible surrounds of the Wu Long River. When all was going to hell, you could still admire the scenery. We spent some time with the Kiwi Drink Pure team whose female had spent the previous day vomiting her way through the course, and on the bus ride home, after apparently not drinking so pure. She gets the hard-arse award and it was incredible she was completing the event.

Arriving by bike in a pretty tourist town, there was a four kilometre navigation by GPS standing between us and the finish. At the TA we were given the GPS coordinates to put in and then had to find the check points in the town. Unfortunately the GPS Alexey used had no maps for the area so although he could see where the points were, we couldn’t see the quickest roads to take or if they were on top of a hill. Instead of putting all the points into the unit and working out the most logical order to collect them, the team did it one-by-one meaning we scaled a hill twice instead of getting both the points the first time. This all happened in Russian so I had no idea what was going on, just that, again, we were getting passed by teams which we’d killed ourselves to gap on the previous leg. Another last place time for this section due to lack of skill, organisation and proper equipment.

The finish line was a 3.6 metre wall which had to be scaled by climbing on a team mate’s back and then pulling over the last person. It was a novel way to finish and we might have enjoyed it more had we not been disheartened and fractured as a team. The language barrier made things difficult and miscommunication was common. There was also frustration from team mates who were being expected to do things they had no preparation for. Both Dan and Alexey said the Weng’an event was the toughest they had ever done in terms of brutal terrain and technical requirements. The field was essentially the World Championships of AR and every top team, bar Swedish Armed Forces, there. In light of the experience they lacked, I thank the rest of the team for not quitting when things got tough.

I’m trying to be philosophical about it but that’s difficult as the full force of the virus I’d had hit post-race with vomiting and fever. After consuming an apple and a 7-up over the last two days I’m struggling to find the energy to type this. Ultimately, it was an opportunity to experience the legendary CMAAR series and will be a great training camp for the Geoquest 48 hour in a couple of weeks. I met some fantastic people again, as is always the case at AR events. Would I travel to another country with an unknown team again? No. I’m still new to this sport and don’t expect to be getting on podiums in such elite competition. While it was good sharing what I’ve learned, I don’t think throwing people into the deep end and then getting annoyed when they don’t have the skills, is a great way to encourage them into the sport. When people get desperate to put teams together there’s a fair bit of embellishment of their abilities and there’s no way to discern the real state of affairs if you don’t know them. I think it also shows a huge disrespect to the sport of adventure-racing assuming you can get by in these events with some off-road triathlon experience. These events are much more gruelling and require a high degree of skill in all the disciplines if you want to be competitive.

After having this experience, I feel even more appreciation for the introduction I’ve had into AR in Australia with some great events and experienced and prepared team mates. It’s been good to learn about my weaknesses and then get to work on them. As soon as I can eat solids, I’m off to run down some hills.

Sponsors and the products I used:

Ride Mechanic – Downunder chamois cream - on my feet as well. Not a single blister anywhere despite running around soaked all day. Bike Mix chain lube – top end performance in the worst mud conditions.

Infinit Nutrition – Salted Caramel electrolyte mix – when baggage weight is an issue, powder mixes make more sense too. Great not-too-sweet flavour, extra electrolytes, no cramps or hunger flats. MUD coffee recovery mix – great for post stage and also the only thing I could ingest while sick.

Flight Centre – Travel - Hobart to Gaiyung and back. No issues with taking the bike on China Southern. If you paid extra you got ripped off. Great information about the complimentary hotel in Guangzhou.

NS Dynamics – Quality suspension service keeps everything feeling plush. The number of people turning up to international events with neglected forks astounds me.

CEP Socks – Compression socks for racing and recovering. Wore them 24/7 to protect the lower legs and reduce calf soreness. The fact that I’m not hobbling around after the most running I’ve done in 10 years is a miracle.