Sunday, August 6, 2017


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


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


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 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.


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.

Saturday, February 18, 2017


I'm hesitant to blog about an XCO race. They're often not the most inspiring things. We go to some obscure town, ride a bunch of 5km laps to practice. Then ride a bunch of faster laps to race and leave. And they hurt. If you race them properly, as hard as you can, they hurt in a way few races do.

In my job as National Development Coach for MTBA (otherwise known as 'the best job in the world') I am lucky enough to spend me time taking young riders to the National series XCO event. For some, it's their first time racing at that level. So last weekend I was in Bairnsdale (obscure town) with five young riders from Perth, Townsville, Hobart and Brisbane, inducting them into the ways of the XCO racer. I had not planned to race as evidenced by the facts that I had spent the previous weekend demolishing a kitchen and worked some 18 hour days to get everyone to the start line. But the juniors were so excited to be there and that made me remember the days when I used to be excited too. This is the pinnacle of racing in Australia and it used to give me goosebumps just lining up. When did I get so cynical about being there?

In previous years I'd been obsessed by training in exactly the correct way and wouldn't dream of lining up unless all the specific efforts had been done. Now, I lined up with a vague recollection of what an interval session was, a lot of miles of running and paddling logged and a proper job. As usual, I was a little fatigued - more from life than training. But it's standard that I stand on a start line having done too much - rarely too little. I suspect this is the case for a lot of elite riders. The major difference from my more serious years is the proximity of my age years to 40. I am actually eligible to ride Masters this year. However I think if you can still mix it in the Elite category, sand-bagging in Masters is frowned upon. When I see Gunn-Rita and Alan Acquarone still contesting in the premier category, I don't think that simply being 40 is justification for dropping down categories.

Has it changed the way I prepare? In some ways. With less time, I have to be smarter about my training. There's far less loitering at the coffee shop. My god I used to waste so much time there in my semi-pro days. Going to races is my social outlet now and I'm saving a fortune in lattes. Knowing my body and what it likes is another thing that comes with experience. Doing a lot of interval work hollows me out. Endurance and strength with a bit of racing seem to be the key. I'm not saying that this is the 'secret' to training for everyone. What I am saying is that riders are individuals and what works for one - be that lot of miles or lots of turbo sessions - won't necessarily work for another. A good reason not follow the training plan of your favourite pro cyclist. And masters riders really need to get to the gym to arrest the decline in muscle mass. This is why we get slower. Resistance exercise and increased protein are keys to hanging on to that watt-producing material.

Mental approach is something that many athletes neglect. My mate, James, asked me before I left for Bairnsdale what my secret was. I replied "Don't give a f**k about the result". Apparently he's using that quote in his book. It is in line with the concept of process goals. Follow the process in achieving all the small goals and let the result (the big goal) take care of itself. I've never looked at a start list. It's not relevant to the process.

Saturday's course was the less technical, but had viscous pinch-climbs throughout. This was murder on the cooked legs but I managed to finish with a silver medal which was far beyond my expectations. Backing it up with a 4th place on Sunday in the wet was solid although I'm disappointed I didn't ride more technically clean to be in the contest for 2nd again, only 20 seconds in front of me at the end. Tiredness and lack of wet weather riding did me no favours.

While it felt good to be back on the podium at National level, no, I'm not making a run at the World Championships or Commonwealth Games teams. The selection policy necessitates some lengthy travel to Europe to race and I know exactly how that story ends - get thumped by international riders and ending up with a huge credit card debt. Perhaps I can see where the cynicism started now... And that's even if I did qualify! After re-reading some of my blog posts from 2016, I also realised I'm having some amazing adventures that don't involve travelling halfway around the world to see 5 kilometres of track.

One of the things which has me excited in 2017 is the new Adventure 1 series. It is, essentially, the national series of Adventure racing comprising of a 24 hour race, 2 x 48 hour races and culminating in a 5 day non-stop expedition race. The first race, X Marathon, means I will be back in Bairnsdale next month. At least I know where the good pizza shop is now. Racing with Peak Adventure we have a fast team on paper and are hoping that translates to the race course. It's been months since I was skolling rice cream straight out of a can so I can't wait to get back out there.

Thanks Ride Mechanic, Infinit Australia, NS Dynamics, Flight Centre Sports & Events, CEP Australia.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


“Top 10 would be nice” I said. Everyone laughed. Yes it was very na├»ve given it was my first full length expedition (XPD) race. Gary and I had only raced together once at Geoquest 48 hour in June. We had known our other two team mates – Tim and John – for three whole days before we were to toe the start line at the World XPD champs. Four hundred athletes descended on the quaint coastal town of Ulladulla including the best adventure racers in the world. Clearly the inventory staff at the supermarkets had not been notified and race staples such as creamed rice and Ziploc bags were quickly sold out.

Looking fresh before being pummelled into the ground by the race

With equipment checks and food shopping the lead up days went quickly. Although it had no bearing on the race, the prologue was entertaining and meant to induct the internationals into Aussie culture. Our designated combined team didn’t fare well after a ‘plugger’ blowout during the beach esky-dash and the South African’s inability to swallow a Vegemite sandwich. (NB. Vegemite apparently invokes the gag reflex in the Proteas which could be useful knowledge).

On the few previous ARs I’d done, maps were distributed the day before meaning hours spent that night working out the best route. This time we were told in advance the order, distance and elevation of each leg but would only have a few hours to work on the maps before boarding the bus to Jervis Bay in the morning for the race start.

We probably should have tried out the provided plastic skis before the race to work out the most efficient paddler distribution. Each team got a shit boat with a rudder and a more shit yellow boat with no rudder. Starting with two people in each it was a sub-optimal combination which team leader, Gary, pointed out:

“You’ve got the heavy guy in the front ya dickheads!”

Clear, open communication like this was one of the strengths of our team. In the middle of the bay we shuttled positions with three in the yellow tub and Gary, a strong paddler, doing it alone in the ski. We actually started gaining on the world champions in this formation and we were 6th out of the water. So surprised to be anywhere close to the front we did what any self-respecting team would do and blew our doors off over the next few legs.

Gary, smashing it solo. Don't you love those glasses? Sorry ladies, he's taken.

Everyone had a bad leg at some point and our position in the race fluctuated to reflect this. We tore the first MTB leg apart but I suffered on the next night’s ride with a knife-like pain in my back. My feet were blistered from the previous hike and I was getting towed up the hills while walking my bike which was new territory for me. It felt like we did half of the 2000m of vertical ascent on foot on the impossibly steep fireroads.

In adventure racing it takes a while to come to terms with the motives of the course designers. They are intent on making some things so ridiculously hard that you crack. To rub salt in the wound you have paid them to intentionally screw you over so there’s no point complaining either. I can’t fully describe one hike-a-bike section except to say that, at one point, I was using my $9000 bike to jam between trees and act as a safety rail to prevent me sliding over a cliff in the dark. I questioned course designer, Craig Bycroft, about this later:

Me: “So have you actually been through that section?”
Craig: “Yes”
Me: “With a bike?”
Craig: “Oh god no!”

One of our best legs was the long hike starting with a brutal climb up the Budawang Range. Trekking through the ferns and rainforest this was the part of Shoalhaven I’d come to see. The coolness didn’t last long though as we crested onto the plateau and the full force of the midday sun hit. We filled water bladders from streams and soaked our caps to cool us down.  Surrounded by towering sandstone bluffs and being torn at by underbrush, I remarked to one of the Euros that this was traditional Aussie scrub. They seemed impressed by this and started taking photos while I kept adding to the painful welts on my thighs by trudging on.

Our lead navigator, Gary, had been in a metaphorical hole but was now, two Cokes later, revitalised and led us efficiently through one of the trickier parts of the course. Many teams lost time here due to ambiguous maps and overgrown tracks.  A raised boardwalk section was so covered in vegetation you weren’t quite sure where the boards were and risked snapping an ankle if you stepped off the side.

We were close to several teams and would overtake one at a slow jog only to be overtaken later during a walking break. It was like the world’s slowest game of leap-frog. Teams enjoyed new conversation partners after so long with the same four people. One benefit of having strangers as team mates – all our stories were new.  It’s the weirdest way to get to know someone. We progressed very quickly from “Hi, good to meet you” to burping, farting and discussing in detail the type of bodily function we would be carrying out in the bushes.

Enjoying the Shoalhaven weather. I remember being warm for exactly one leg out of 14.

Arriving at the Nerriga transition area (TA), we built our bikes up and headed out at dusk. Our sleep strategy at this point had been to skip the first night entirely and grab two hours in a tent on the second night.  Heading into night three we all suffered from the sleep-monsters. The long blinks, the hallucinations. At one point I was mesmerised by an impossibly large wombat just staring back at me. But then everyone else saw it too – nope, that one was real. We were doing zig-zags across the road and the boring 70km on tarmac did nothing to keep the fatigued mind awake. We decided on a 20 minute power nap and just lay down beside the road and slept.  It’s amazing what 20 minutes and a couple of No Doze can do and we punched out the rest of the ride to arrive at the Bungonia Caves.

Caving was the ‘mystery discipline’ and conjured up visions of tame family-oriented walks through spacious caverns with requisite stalactites and the occasional bat.  Even the briefing we got at the TA indicated this was a bit of fun and we should wiz through finding check points and still have time for a nap in our mandatory 5 hours we had to spend there.

The first cave we went to revealed this was a vastly inaccurate portrayal. Having a fear of heights I was overjoyed that caving had replaced abseiling as a leg. However when faced with the tiny subterranean crack I was required to squeeze through I realised I may be equally claustrophobic. It was unbelievable that people not only go in there, but that they do this for fun. Teams lost hours trying to find the caves which were just small holes in the ground. But then some of their team mates were too big to fit through to gaps so they had to find an additional cave to make up their mandatory five check points. Luckily we had John, whose super-power is apparently sensing the location of caves, navigating through their many rooms to quickly locate the CP all the while singing obscure 80’s hits in a Scottish lilt. Grabbing 20 minutes sleep afterwards we saw teams which had been hours ahead of us only just heading out on the next leg.

Boulder-hopping for an indeterminably long time (I stopped wearing a watch so had no idea how long we took to do things), we finally inflated the pack-rafts and headed down the Shoalhaven river. We had only negotiated a few rapids when Tim started vomiting over the side after complaining of feeling unwell. Being in the other boat I could observe from a safe distance the most amount of fluid I’ve ever seen come out of someone. My fear that it might spell the end of our race was unfounded as Tim pushed on like the hard-nut he is.

I imagine pack-rafting is quite fun when there is substantial water but we spent the time trying to shuffle over rocks, going down rapids backwards and walking when the water got too shallow. Our raft got a sizeable hole in it and after 8 hours of sitting in water we arrived at the TA after sunset and all the heat promptly left my body. Shivering uncontrollably and having no dry clothes I headed to the warmth of the disabled toilet and disrobed to get out of my wet gear. I then realised I would have to get back into my wet gear and warm up before we started the 10 hour kayak leg. After much discussion and Tim still not feeling 100%, three of us ended up huddled under space blankets and slept on the toilet floor for 5 hours. It’s strange how completely OK with this I was. XPD really does change your priorities.

Waking at 4am we were on the water shooting rapids once the sun rose. If the whole 56kms were like this it would have been fun but we soon hit the dreaded flat water. Just kilometres of monotonous paddling with sleep deprivation playing tricks with our minds. Animals and other creatures morphed out of the cliff faces and we chewed up time pointing them out to each other. This leg will be remembered for the singing, shouting and shit talk of half the team to try to stay awake. I kept eating No Doze like Tic Tacs, tried paddling while ‘resting my eyes’ and almost fell out of the boat a couple of times. My hallucinations weren’t as impressive as some, but it was entertaining watching my brain try to make sense out of what was happening. It was like a last line of defence against forced wakefulness: “Ok, you won’t let me sleep? Here’s…a unicorn! Ha!” Not much of a shock and awe campaign I must say.

Glad I didn't have to do every paddle leg like this. River crossing during a hike. Only 3 seats so the smallest goes on the back.

So glad to reach Nowra and never have to touch the boats again, we stomped the MTB with John drilling it at the front and the rest of us holding a wheel. It seemed like the easiest 100km I’d ever done even though there was 1800m climbing in it. The only hiccup here was the five minutes I spent crying like a 4 year old after my feet swelled in my shoes and I felt like a Chinese-foot-binding victim. My entire team laughed at me writhing on the ground and said “Welcome to XPD racing”. Just part of the experience apparently.

Eighteen kilometres doesn’t sound like a long trek but after four and a bit days of racing we hit the beach at night to be greeted with sideways rain. Leaning into the wind it felt like every force of nature was trying to prevent us from reaching the finish line. I can understand the vision of the organisers to have teams finishing with a run on the beach and a couple of river mouth crossings in the warm sunshine. But at midnight in a gale the effect was lost on us. After trying to find a shallow crossing to keep mostly dry I gave up, stripped off and breast-stroked across with my backpack in the dark.  I never miss a chance to get the kit off in AR it seems.

Everyone's favourite thing - sand running. Can you tell how much fun we're having?

Crossing the line after 4 days and 14 hours was a strange mix of emotions. Yes I was tired, sore and very over being wet and cold. But it was also sad the adventure had finished. We sat on the couches for the traditional pizza and bubbly and chatted to Craig Bycroft about the course. I’m always so impressed by the Geocentric crew and their eagerness to talk to racers and get feedback on the event.
There were so many highs and lows that are now fragments in a fatigued-addled brain. They were so vivid when we were still in the ‘race bubble’ reliving our experience. Even a day after arriving home though, the details are starting to fade. The thing I’ll remember is the fun we had as a team. I was incredibly lucky to race with three very experienced guys and I’m so grateful they helped me through with a minimum of piss-taking.

Gary – I’ll work on faffing less in TAs and always carry a spare thermal

Tim – I won’t hassle you for carrying too much food and then scab it all off you when I’ve run out

John – Sorry again for putting a hole in your dry bag. But you did hit me in the head with the paddle a few too many times

To get 11th at the World Championships in my first XPD race is incredible. To do it as a newly formed team is even more impressive. I’m pretty excited to see what we can accomplish if we can ‘get the band back together’. It’s just outside my Top 10 wish so of course I’m a little dissatisfied. But I’m always dissatisfied, that’s why I keep lining up for the next one.

Total distances:

115km trek
322km MTB
185km paddle
5km caving

Thanks to:

Team mates – Gary Sutherland, Tim Sikma and John Laughlin. Just no words. Thanks

Craig and Louise from Geocentric – awesome course and event. Well done guys

Trevor Mullens from Tiger Adventure – You outdid yourself with team mate matching this time

Infinit Nutrition – looked forward to the MUD on my Weetbix on every trek

Ride Mechanic – Owen went beyond the call of duty with a 10pm drop off to get me more Moonshine and Bike Mix for the race

Liv Bikes – Everyone who picked up my Lust said “oh my god, it’s so light”. Perfect bike for the job

NS Dynamics – suspension service and tuning

CEP Compression socks - for racing and recovery. Minimal fat feet

The Trail Co. - The Salomon S-Lab Wings is my favourite shoe

Saturday, October 1, 2016

2016 XPD - Altay, China

As I opened my eyes I mentally catalogued the parts of my body that hurt and attempted to rank them in order of severity. Rolling out of bed well after the hotel breakfast had started, I groaned as my lower back flexed and my quads woke up. Then I put my badly swollen and blistered feet on the floor. Yep, that’s it – the feet win. As all my shoes were still in our race boxes I donned the hotel-provided slippers and padded around recalling the previous three days in the far northern wilderness of China.

I questioned the wisdom of racing my first XPD (expedition length) race on foreign soil. Having never been to China this was both the attraction but also a step into the unknown. There were doubts about the organisation of the race as it was the first time it had been held. Reports of frequent illness by travellers unused to the water and food also concerned me. But the chance to race in some of the most remote regions in Asia was irresistible and the slick promo video got me over the line.

Our team consisted of two of Australia’s most experience adventure racers, Leo Theoharis and Dave Schloss and young gun Thierry Ellena who had recently relocate back to his French homeland.  I was the ‘green’ racer – goes OK on a mountain bike but unproven in a continuous multiday event and super nervous about making it to the end. The 160km of MTB I was confident of, the 35km paddle I would suffer but rely on the fact that the boats were doubles and I would have a strong partner. One hundred kilometres on foot, however, was twice as far as I’d ever done and included some peaks over 2400m. Would I even be able to pedal a bike after that?

The message I’d received about travel in China was to not expect anything to run as planned but to trust that everything would work out in the end. After a lengthy flight to Urumqi, we arrived at 1am to find the left luggage department closed and us unable to leave our large bike boxes until our flight to Altay the next afternoon. Not only did our shuttle bus from our accommodation not arrive, our hotel gave our reservation away and every hotel nearby was booked out despite the best efforts of a random lady who rang around for us for over an hour. Some racers in the same boat had taken to rolling out sleeping bags and bedding down in the airport nature strips. Winging it we found a couple of taxi drivers with broken English who promised us a good quality hotel with a spare room. It ended up being the best accommodation Dave had seen in China however the lack of Maxi Taxis required some inventive logistics. Yes that’s a $9000 bike strapped into the back seat with a tie down. I did admire the ‘get shit done’ attitude of the Chinese already though.

Looks legit

We spent the next day exploring some local markets and getting hooked on some of the local breads. The north of China is heavily influenced by Islamic culture and cuisine so it wasn’t an endless parade of rice and noodles. Later, a short flight to Altay followed by a 4 hour bus ride crammed in with other racers and, after avoiding a head on with an errant camel, we arrived exhausted to the Kanas Lake Guest house. It wasn’t until the morning that we realised it was a sort of castle in a town of two halves – one of upmarket holiday accommodation for the burgeoning Chinese middle class, and the other a city of traditional ‘yurt’ tents housing the poorer citizens who herded sheep, cattle and camels to greener pastures. While the valley was beautiful it also had an edge of hardness about it, emphasised by the dusting of snow which arrived that day giving a hint of the extreme conditions outside of the mild seasons.

There's nothing like fresh snow to get you excited for an alpine race...not. Yurt city in the background.
Our Chinese Castle at Kanas
I think they spike these with crack cocaine - so addictive straight out of the oven

The day before the race proper, a prologue event was organised for the local media. Many of the rider’s bikes still hadn’t arrived by truck from Urumqi but luckily it was only a run – kayak – run event. Most teams took it easy but it was a good opportunity to test the race-provided kayaks out and gauge how cold the lake would be. The absolutely stunning setting of Kanas Lake also whet the appetite for what was to come in the XPD race. Leaves were turning autumn hues while the lake was the milky blue colour that comes from being fed by glaciers. Canadian water has the same colour and we could very well have been there surrounded by white capped peaks.

Talk from the experienced racers centred around how ‘short’ this event was for an XPD. The winning team was expected to complete the course in around two days with the course remaining opened for around 3 days, although this seemed to be constantly changing. The challenge of a relatively short course is the pressure to go without sleep for the entire race to be competitive. The initial 5 hour mandatory rest stop had been replaced with a 2 hour break in which time we had to complete a ‘cultural activity’.

Pretty much this for days. Put it on your itinerary.

From the gun the pace felt like we were racing for 3 hours not days, as teams ran up the first climb. We avoided the longer, more popular, gentle climb on the road and headed straight up the guts of the 30% + grade grass and rock climb. I was on the tow line soon afterwards struggling with cold seizing calves and a lack of extreme mountain running. It turned out to be a poor route choice and we were 16th at the first check point (CP). Following a ridgeline we then descended to the next points and settled into the race.

It’s the first trek that really sticks in my mind. Perhaps because I was still fresh and noticing the scenery instead of staring at the feet in front of me in survival mode as per later legs. It was breath-taking surroundings and I could scarcely believe I was actually racing in such a place.  It felt like one of the last wild places on earth.  This near-deserted valley which had remained a secret to most of the world would not remain one once racers told of their adventures there.  Our navigator made some great route choices and we moved up to 13th quickly before meeting professional team Adventure Medical Kits along a river trail. They had made a mistake and ended up at the wrong lake costing them around 45 minutes in a race where there was little margin for error. They weren’t with us for long and moved away at a supernatural pace.

Decisions made on the run determine the outcome of these events. Do you take the short but steep route? Or the longer easier one? Stay up high out of the thick vegetation and risk missing a vital turn on the trail? Teams risked dehydration by taking minimal water to save weight in the hope they would be able to find some on the course and use purification tablets to make it drinkable.  Water was not a problem with numerous streams and marshes crossing the landscape.

Once the initial flurry of speed was gone we kept trotting along remembering the drink and eat and pop ibuprofen as appropriate. If that doesn’t sound too healthy imagine living on mainly chocolate bars, electrolyte, gels and biscuits for a few days. Racers need to find the most calorie dense foods to pack to keep them going. Taste fatigue is inevitable and the tolerance for sweet things wanes quickly in preference to salty snacks and Vegemite sandwiches.

All the CP’s were manned which is highly unusual in this type of race. Louise Bycroft, organiser of the Australian version of the event, revealed the volunteers in China were often very wealthy citizens who were quite taken with the idea of being part of the first XPD in the country. There was no shortage of manpower and despite the pre-race hiccups, once started, the organisation was flawless.

We had predicted the first trek to take 12 hours but managed to be back at the transition zone in 8 so perhaps this was to be a quick race? Getting changed into kayaking gear while giving interviews to media was an effort in multitasking but I managed to get all the right clothes on and we were excited to be on the splendid lake in the last couple of hours of daylight. I nearly died of heatstroke in the first half hour as I dressed for the rapid drop in temperature that accompanies the setting sun. Better than that trying to get dressed in a boat in the middle of a cold lake. Unfortunately Thierry was a little underdressed and hunger flat and suffered hypothermia for the first half of the leg, to the point of almost passing out and falling out of the boat. Leo struggled to paddle the kayak by himself to the first checkpoint where we got out at a beach, got Thierry dry and warm and then tied the kayaks together so Dave and I could help pull the second craft along while our team mate got going again. It felt like we were the last team off the water in the darkness but we learned many teams had shortcut the course due to the cold and were now unranked although still racing in front of us.

The transition after a cold paddle is always miserable with cold hands refusing to work to put on clothes and do up zips. I was so desperate to get my socks on I neglected to put more chamois cream on my feet which came back to bite me later when I developed massive blisters on the soles.  The hard climb up to the next checkpoint was a welcome relief and enabled everyone to warm up quickly. This didn’t last long as we crossed snow and frost and the temperature fell to minus three during the night. The only advantage was that the marshes froze meaning we could walk across them rather than wade through them, keeping our feet a little drier. True to form there was a lone guy at CP 11 at the very top of the climb dressed in a sleeping-bag suit to keep warm. He was so happy to see each racer even though he was alone in subzero temperatures for the majority of the night.

Despite wearing gloves I lost feeling in a few of my fingers and they started to throb so badly I thought I’d have to have them amputated due to frost bite. I tried sticking them down my pants alternately to revive them with my own body heat. It was remarkably effective but I was thankful it was dark and I was among friends. We trudged on under the billions of starts while navigating our way through the misty darkness.

There’s a certain excitement that accompanies sunrise on a multiday adventure as it banishes the sleep monsters and enables you to enjoy the some scenery with your suffering. Unfortunately it coincided with the bursting of my first blister and I limped along before a team mate went beyond the call of duty and applied blister patches to my now less-than fresh feet. The trek had taken longer than expected and I was simultaneously hunger-flat and nauseous and struggled into a local town for our mandatory rest stop.  From the numerous wolf-skins displayed we may not have been as alone as we thought the previous night. Although the more skins we saw, the less likely I considered there be any wolves left in the area.

A local cook demonstrate the art of noodle-making which we all had to repeat before cooking our creations. We’d been very careful about eating the local food until that point but when some mystery meat and sauce were added we threw caution to the wind, happy for something that didn’t taste like race food. Huddled into sleeping bags we ended up sleeping through our alarm and lost 30 minutes before rushing to the next transition for the mountain bike leg.

I was overjoyed to be off my feet but my legs were destroyed from the trekking and I was useless for the first couple of hours on the bike. Thierry had regained his strength and was tearing it up and thoughtfully threw out a line to tow me along. Hitting the cattle tramped singletrail we were chewing up the miles and passed a couple of teams who had issues and were retiring from the race. The 600 + metres of vertical hike a bike was named my least favourite section of the race. Stiff carbon soled shoes were a poor choice and I was literally counting 20 steps forward, resting and repeating.  The reward was a smashing singletrack descent with steep technical rock features. It almost felt like a mountain bike race for a while.

Single yurts were dotted in desolate spots with families sometimes tending their flocks of animals. We wondered about their existence: What do they do out here? How do they live? Are they happy with so little? There was a lot of time for reflection about the things we value in our own ‘real lives’ back home.

Night came again and we were rocketing down an endless descent strewn with loose rocks ready to ping your front wheel off in the wrong direction. While not known as the technical rider of the group, Dave was setting a frightening pace, leaving little room for error and I was scaring myself keeping up. I’d been focusing so hard on staying upright I hadn’t noticed the damp air had become cold rain which brought the mood down and had the potential to be life-threatening if improperly attired. Toward the end of the ride I started suffering from the lack of sleep and doing ‘long blinks’ while hammering descents was not optimal. We arrived at the next transition where we had a 20 minute nap in a warm yurt before heading out for the abseil. In hindsight this was a wasted activity and merely resulted in us getting very wet and cold all for a 2 minute drop down a rock face that we couldn’t see because it was around midnight.

Back at the TA and dressing in the last of my dry clothes we were cheered that, by the map, we only had a 50 kilometre mountain bike to go. It was expected to take 5 hours so it was obviously not straightforward, but we were looking forward to being at the hotel in time for breakfast. It did not pan out that way.

After 4 hours of searching in the rain soaked night we not only did not know where CP 27 was – we also didn’t know where we were. There were tracks all over the place made by cattle so it was difficult to ascertain which ones were marked on the map. There was much discussion over things we ‘should’ be seeing that were on the map but what was in front of use just didn’t add up. After trying several different routes we ended up in thick mud that clogged our bike frames and cost us another hour of cleaning to get our bikes working again.

We were cold, wet and demoralised. In our minds racing was not about skipping CPs and taking time penalties, and in other races this is not allowed and results in disqualification. We considered our race was over and headed out onto what we hoped was the highway which would lead us directly to the finish line in Altay. Thierry even gave an interview to a passing media crew about how we were pulling out of the race.

Everyone looked so despondent and Dave and Leo had been in this situation thrice before, having never made it to finish line in a China race due to illness and other bad luck. A team meeting was called and we made a plan – we’d turn around, restock with food at a small town and try again to find the CP. While in town we asked for directions through a series of charades as no one spoke any English. The locals were especially friendly and we were dragged into a house in our filthy gear and served tea and fried breads.  Neighbours were summoned and photos were taken with the strange visitors. I was exhausted but smiled at the touching meeting of cultures and warmth of the people who had so little.

Back out on the trail and another four hours passed, although it only seemed like one, as if I was caught in some sort of time warp. We tried several different approach tracks and even bumped into another team who were having similar issues but the CP continued to elude us. I risked rabies by getting too close to dog-guarded yurts during the search. By this time I was well and truly a broken individual. I’d stopped being able to eat much, feeling like anything I put in my stomach would be ejected.

My desire to get to the finish line by the quickest route possible was expressed in the strongest terms to my team mates. Yes I cracked the shits. On paper the shortest route was still to follow the race course past the last two check points. We should have known that ‘on paper’ means absolutely nothing in XPD and the last few hours of grovelling through the Canyon almost brought me to tears. There is apparently a limit to how many times one can carry ones bike in and out of a ravine at various points while being thwarted by impasses before one wants to slash ones wrist with an empty gel packet.

After the final CP is was fast, flowing double track through another picturesque canyon and we reached the final TA where was left our bikes and hiked the final 2 kilometres into town in our cleats. Rob Preston of 2nd placed AMK met us before the finish lines with beers – what a stand-up guy!  This will explain our finishers photo – no we didn’t carry those with us in our packs the whole way. After 57 hours of racing and 1.20 hours of sleep we crossed the finish line in 14th spot, just in time for dinner at the swanky race hotel.

The next couple of days was spent mainly eating and swapping stories with other teams as they finished. Analysis of what was done and could have been done better is normal. Personally I took away positives and negatives from the race. I learned a lot about looking after myself and my team mates physically and logistically. This was my first attempt at a race of this kind and I couldn’t conceive of the challenges that I’d face until I was out there. Mentally, I cracked a couple of times and while this disappoints me it also makes me impatient to try again to prove I can do better.

I’m not taking on AR because I think I’m suited to it. Quite the opposite. I’m taking it on because I believe it can teach me to become a better ‘me’. If I’m going to survive in this sport I will need to become more resilient, resourceful and skilled at working as part of a team. The next challenge is the XPD World Championships in Shoalhaven which is almost twice as long as the China event. I’m more inspired to prepare for that now and the short run/hobble I did yesterday is the start of the next training block. Yes, I’m crazy, but at least now I’m in good company.

Race kit used:

Liv Lust 0 - maintained by For The Riders and NS Dynamics

Ride Mechanic - Down Under chamois cream (for feet too!) and Bike Mix chain lube

Infinit - XPD carb and electrolyte mix kept in a single bottle for nutrition with a camelbak bladder of plain water in addition. MUD coffee and protein mix with my cereal for hiking on the go and preventing muscle breakdown.

Salomon S-Lab Wings - complete confidence in these shoes and a great fit. From The Trail Co.