Monday, 10 December 2012

New Lodger

...and a new tick to boot for my local list, although i'm not sure that one bird really qualifies as a wild population.

Over the last few mornings I swore I was hearing a rooster strutting his stuff.  Sure enough nature's alarm clock, in the form of a very handsome Rhode Island Red, made himself known on the weekend. 

Wasn't sure whether to adopt him or eat him.  Just kidding.  The brush turkeys would be far better roasting.  In any case, having lost a best-of-three at tic-tac-toe I'll fulfill my side of the bargain with a custom build (due to steric issues the Mavic-Budgie was never going to cut it).  He has a name too, although Anita has forbidden me from making it known.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Tawny Froggies

 Frogmouths roosting in the jacaranda just below my patio.   The parent and one of the chicks then assume "the position" in response to some kids trundling along below them.

 In contrast to trying to blend in, the local brush turkey (he with the bad tail) is doing his best to drive the more conservative set in my block crazy with enthusiastic and persistent mound building by the letter box.  

 And lastly, split my hive of native bees for the second time.  Half now have new digs in Coogee.

 Honey pots on the RHS

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Old Bling New Bling

Chris's repaired C'dale (he breaks everything he rides) re-kitted out in SRAM Red and high end carbon bits, coming in at 6.85 kg (just legal, and not bad for Large, and incidentally the same weight as Mr Dugan's Cervelo R5, also in Large), with a view to 3peaks early next year.

And for me, a 2012 Anthem Advanced 26er frameset which i'll gradually build up as a second identical machine to old faithful (09 vintage) should any further 24solos be entertained.  A bit of a gamble to stick with the endangered 26er (no longer in production from Giant), but at least it is the devil i know, and should get me round the tight and twisty bits of Stromlo.  BTW,  Anita and GK also recently jumped on the 26er Anthem bandwagon.  Get em whilst you can!

Monday, 12 November 2012

Hubris waffle

Highland Fling 2012

My time of 5:24 placed me 19th in category (of 240, behind the winner's astonishing 4:35), and 100th outright (of ~750, winning time of 4:11 = same as posted lasted year, on an essentially identical 112 km course). 

Pre-race nutrition consisted of 6:30 pizza and a few glasses of red.  Anita and I were probably asleep by 9.  Slept well with clear nostrils – usually a good sign.  Awoke early and was numero uno in the coffee queue.  Eyes in no probs.  Hob-knobbed with Mr Welch (17th in Cat last year) pre-start.  Nice bloke, and nice to get to know he who bested me in the solo a month before.  Now I actually know what he looks like.

Started with the first wave and despite Mr Welch bolting from the gun I deliberately held it back and settled into a very comfortable rhythm mid pack.  About half way through the first sector (27 km) I passed not only Mr Welch, who seemed to be struggling, but also Mr Adams (2nd in Cat last year) with a mechanical.  I basically stuck to the plan of holding what I thought to be an honest but maintainable pace, and ended up rolling into transition in 1:04, 3 min quicker than last year but a whole lot fresher. 

The middle leg (53 km) contains the bulk of the technical single track and the bulk of the climbing, and is traditionally where I blow up, usually before the mid-race feed.  This year was different, however.  The single track was a real joy to ride, mostly I think because my handling skills have improved to the point where I can comfortably hold position within the conga lines and not scrub off speed unnecessarily on every second corner – and not burn off energy unnecessarily.  The climbs were a grovel, but I knew what to expect and dosed my effort accordingly.

The main technicalities and climbs done with, at the 70 km point (~3:15 in), still feeling comfortable, I unwittingly found myself in a group of about 6 containing some of the Masters category favorites, including Mr Adams, who had clawed his way back despite his mechanical.  Adams made a dig to escape, but we brought him back on the windy high plains gravel road which runs from the 70 km mark through to the second transition at 80 km.  This is where hubris kicked in.  It suddenly occurred to me that I was at the head of affairs, and that If I played my cards correctly a high finish was assured.  As we worked this sector I did my turns – enough but not too much, until one guy moved to the front and put in a particularly hard effort.  Being next in line it was my turn to close the gap, which I duly did - painfully.  But in doing so, just as contact was made, I suffered immediate and severe cramp in my right hamstring, to the point all I could do was stand.  I couldn’t even turn the crank without it seizing again, despite one of the other guys giving me a push for some seconds to see if I could recover.  Alas it was not to be.

About a minute passed before I could even pedal a proper revolution, let alone put some power down, and by this stage the group was out of sight.  Hence, the last 5 km to transition was ridden at snails pace, downing a good dose of liquid on my back and waiting for the legs to come good.  Just before transition Mr Welch caught me, and we had a brief chat before crossing the rail line, bottle filling, peeing and heading off again.  Just minutes into the last 32 km sector the lead trio of Elite field riders came scorching past.  I thought jumping on them was folly, so I didn’t, unlike Mr Welch, who obviously had the legs, and that was it – I didn’t see him till the finish.

To add to my woes, with about 28 to go the left knee pain which surfaced during the recent 24 was back, forcing me to ride a heavy gear out of the saddle for much of the remainder.  This really pulled the wind from my sails, and I resigned myself to a painful and pedestrian finish.  Even so, I managed most of the pinches on the “roller coaster” sector, and even managed to clean “broke-back mountain” for the first time, and still managed to enjoy the last bits of rocky hill-side single track before the final push to the line.

The Adams group rolled home in 5:09 – only good enough for 8th this year, and Mr Welch came home in 5:12 and 13th, almost the identical time and place as last year.  My 5:24 was not quite the finish I was talking up, so I’m a little bit disappointed, but it was the best I could muster on the day, and I’m actually surprised I didn’t bleed more time over the last 30 km given the hydration/tactical screw-up, and knee complications in the last sector.

Otherwise it was a grand day out – perfect conditions.  And in her first taste of the Fling, Anita even rolled around the “Casual Fling” course on her brand-spanking dually, only parking it once in the “great sandy desert” sector, and is keen to give the Half Fling a nudge next year.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Fling Time

I’m usually battling for motivation at this time of year.  I’ve typically descended from the emotional high of the Scott24 and am back at the bench with head properly ensconced in conundrums that typify research.  Add summer heat into the mix, which usually hits about now, and the Fling is hardly an event I’ve really been out to smash, and this has been accurately reflected in my far from stellar results over the last few years, where I struggle to even finish within an hour of my age-group category winner. 

This year however, a few days before the event, I feel different.  I’m still at race weight (which these days is 68 kg), I seem to have recovered nicely from the recent 24, and I’m not coughing and spluttering.  Hence this could be the year that I finally nail a good Highland Fling.  Have just checked the entry list tho, and there are quite a few obstacles which separate me from a top 5 finish, or even a top 10 finish.  The Masters field (240 strong), is peppered with quality riders, including about 30 who have either beaten me convincingly in past Flings, or finished within 10 minutes of me at the Convict100 (in May, when I was in good form), both courses of similar distance.  There are at least 5 riders who, if they perform even vaguely as you’d expect, will hammer me soundly and fill all steps on the top 5 podium, including a fmr NSW roadman of the year (Mr Hickson).  Additionally, the pendulum has definitely swung in favor of the 29er (and for this type of course a 29er hard-tail) over the 26er dually I’ll be packing (old timer!), so I’ve definitely got my work cut out being competitive.   Realistically I’ll be aiming for a time inside of about 5:10 for the 112 km course (sub 5 might be a tad unrealistic – my best time thus far has been about 5:50! – although lack of discipline in the night-before beer department has not helped my cause).  Even if achieved this might still only be good enough for a top 20 age-cat finish given the quality of the field and the ever-progressing state of the arms race.  Apart from good legs, also key will be strategy.  Must hold back in the first quarter (which I’m bad at) in order to have something in the tank for the last quarter (usually cramping on empty), where even bigger losses or gains will be realized.  Must also force down more food than I’ve consumed in the past. 

T’will be interesting to see if I’m on the mark with my ambitions/predictions, or whether such conjecture is mere hubris-waffle.  Time to roll wheels and dice and find out.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Plain Wanderers Twitch 2012

Time to clean the bins (binoculars), grab the scopes, jump in the car, head west, and try not to dip out (miss seeing) any dead certs, and may the jizz (essence of each bird) be with you. 

The “Plain Wanderers” this year would have a bit of a change in roster.  Ed (“the black falcon”) Williams now resides in Melbs, whilst Andy (“eagle eyes”) Holmes had family commitments.  In their place we had two newbies;  Anita (“firetail”) Mudge and Alastair (“the egret”) Stewart, both of whom would be experiencing their first attempt at the 24hr format.  Rounding out the quartet we had yours truly (“swampy”) and Rob (“tattlers”) Hynson. 

Every competitive team needs at least one gun, and ours was definitely Rob, who not only has the biggest list, but as well as being strong in the dry and wet forests, is an expert on waders and sea birds.  Without Rob we were going to struggle to hit 150 species.  With him we were a chance at 200 plus.  In 2009, at our first attempt, we got 173.  In 2010 we tallied 193.  Although with a greener lineup this year, the general drying of the interior that follows a couple of years of wetlands boom hinted that perhaps this time we would topple 200.

The route we would follow was going to be similar to years past, starting somewhere south of Gunnedah, dusking near Quirindi, camping at Barrington Tops, before visiting various forests and swamps on the coast to finish at Newcastle.

On Friday afternoon we managed to escape Sydney without too much traffic, picked up Alastair at Maitland (who’d done some reconnaissance and list-expanding in the preceding days), before bunking down in Scone at the Golden Fleece Hotel, that is, after a few ales and encounters with inebriated local youths at the bar.

On Saturday morn we coffee’d at Quirindi, where Rob’s binoculars encouraged conversation with a local who encouraged us to check out a good spot on his property for plum-headed finch, a species that had eluded Anita and I despite much dry country searching.  “What car are you driving so I don’t end up shooting you?”, he quipped.  Sure enough, some casurinas and tall grass near a clapped-out homestead yielded three species of finch all mixed in together:  red-browed, double-bar, AND the elusive plum-headed.  This was a great start of the trip for Anita and I.  There was some other good stuff around as well so we vowed we’d try and factor this site into the twitch route later in the day.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent scoping various areas we hoped to visit once the race began, and deciding the best route strategy that would minimize the driving but cover the most important locations.  At the Quipolly Dams, and again at Lake Goran we intersected 4WDs full of birders from Tamworth, doing exactly the same thing. 

The other pre-race highlight was scoping the still expansive Lake Goran, where, along with multiple banded plover, avocets, spoonbills, sharpies and red-capped plovers, we found a solitary Australian pratincole and a Latham’s snipe – and not at 300 m across heat-haze shimmer but at 20 and 5 m from the car!  The pratincole was a new tick for all of us, and is one of those inland rarities of no fixed address which had even managed to evade Rob’s list, until now.  We bid it farewell and hoped it and the snipe would still be there once the race was under way.

At 4 pm sharp the race kicked off for use in Breezer State Forest, and was a bit of a slow affair, where some of the species we had seen earlier in the day failed to re-materialize, although we did get the delightful western gerygone.  We seemed to be having more success with non-feathered fauna, including a goanna, an echidna and a Koala, before we got to Lake Goran with the clock at 4:45. 

Unfortunately, the pratincole and snipe we had spied earlier were gone, but after a bit of searching we found another 3 pratincole at a different spot.  In all we got everything that we’d found earlier at Goran, apart from a hobby and the snipe, although Rob managed to spy another snipe the following day with only about 2 hours still on the clock.

Next stop was Spring Ridge State Forest, where we got the all-important red-capped robin, but dipped out on its dry robin brethren; hooded and jacky winter.  With the clock at 5:45 we were 15 min behind schedule, but at least we were back on the road heading east towards Quirindi and the plum-headed site, which we gained at approx. 6:20.  By 6:45 we were back in the car, heading for the Quipolly dams where we maxed out on grebes and cormorants, and at the upper dam got a swag of ducks, including blue billed and Aust. shoveller.  As dusk fell night herons moved on in as we collated the count thus far; approx. 100, which was about 10 more than we usually tally on the first day.  This augured well for the assault on 200. 

We have traditionally not done well on the owls, but this time proved different.  Before we even got back to Quirindi we had tawny frogmouth and boobook owl in the bag, and on the long haul into the Allyn River campsite we gained 4 barn owls, and an equal number more frogmouths.  Not having to do any further spotlighting was a great relief, and our heads hit pillows at approx. 1:15, with alarms set for 5 am.

The rainforest dawn chorus didn’t disappoint, and in no time we had another 20 odd species added to the list, although conspicuously absent were the assortment of larger pigeons that we’d usually count on at the tops of fruiting trees.  However, we felt we’d done well and by 7:15 we were back in the car and heading to Green Wattle Road for some forest species and then onto the Hunter estuary mouth (Stockton Sand Spit) in an effort to catch the end of the high tide, where the waders would be concentrated to a few areas.

Green Wattle and Stockton were where our efforts started to come a little unstuck.  Whilst we only got a couple of ticks at Green Wattle Road, the hoard of waders we would usually expect at Stockton were simply absent.  Time to change plans and hit Ash Island and Hexam Swamp to see if we were any luckier with the waders.  We weren’t.

By this stage there were some other issues coming into play as well, firstly in the form of my stomach, and secondly in the form of Alastair’s.  The previous eve we had dined (for want of a more appropriate word) at the Muswellbrooke chapter of Hungry Jack’s.  Uncharacteristically, Alastair and I both nominated chicken as the item between the sickly sweet buns.  At the time I pronounced it close to the worst burger I’d ever eaten.  Whilst all seemed OK up to mid morning, by now I was suffering severe stomach cramps and was unable to pass anything despite several attempts.  This made the sea watch at the Newcastle baths an ordeal (not much to see anyway – again contrasting with previous years), and by the time we got to the last ports of call, first Alastair chilled out in the car (Minmi and Pambula), then I took time out (Kurri forest).  Fortunately, only 3 of the 4 have to ID any bird to add it to the count.  We gained the Wetlands Center, where most who twitch the Hunter officially finish, just in time to have Alastair exit the car and throw up almost immediately, poor fellow.  I seemed to have recovered a little by this stage, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet. 

At the sometimes awkward gathering of birders that typify the end of this sort of event, the wash-up was that despite our measly total of 177 species (to the winners ~235), we still returned the 4th best score of the teams finishing in Newcastle, pipping 5th by a solitary tick.  Biggest dip for us was a tie between brown thornbill and fan-tailed cuckoo, whilst rarest bird was definitely the pratincole, which even seemed to impress the winning teams.  Whilst this was far from the 200 we were after (or expected after the excellent first day), I was still surprised we even got this many given the trouble we’d had with the forest sectors, and the shore and sea birds in particular.  Whatever respectability this score holds is in large part due to Rob (again!), who apart from his A-grade twitching expertise held up best physically, fuelled on a diet of of asian snack mix, beef burger and chocolates. 

We were a pretty shattered posse that limped to the car for the drive back to Sydney.  Alastair was feeling so unwell he decided to stay on in Newcastle that night.  We dropped Rob off at Hornsby Station and got home just before dark so I could chill out on the loo for half an hour.  I must have mirrored one of those deliriously relieved individuals one sometimes sees in adds for toilet paper.  Homemade pizza thankfully delivered no awkward side effects, followed by one of the heaviest sleeps I can remember. 

I think two 24hr events 2 weeks apart is about as much as this punter can handle.  Time for a much needed weekend at home before the mudge and I hit the southern highlands for the Highland Fling MTB enduro – the last significant hurdle on my calendar for 2012. 

 Mix of red-browed and plum-headed finches
 Bird hide at upper Quipolly dam
 Chock-a-bloc at lower Quipolly
 Lake Goran still pretty full for the third year in a row.
 Never seen so many banded lapwing
 The delightful red capped plover
 Australian practincole
 Snipe in the grass


 Rufous whistler, and no trip to Gunnedah is complete without a Koala.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Scott24solo2012 - Sleepless in Stromlo

[WARNING:  May take as long to negotiate as the blue lap]

Time for action.  Bike ready, rider ready (cough), pit crew ready.  The challenge at hand, however, took a slight deviation as The Competition (Mr McAvoy), who must have got wind of my cunning plan and impending doom, was instead entered with his RLFactory team-mate in the pairs division (which they ended up winning – just!).  Bugger.  Whilst a little disappointing not to be up against the big cheese, it did take some of the pressure off as, during the week and a half lead up, i typically surrendered to sickness, although thankfully a milder version this time. As the spluttering again ensued only after i had entered my taper period (= slow kms and general laziness), i'm left concluding that the reason i succumb to flu is the crescendo of stress that culminates in race day.  In part it's why i've only got one of these things in me a year.  On top of getting physically into shape there is so much to think about and organize.

The house resembled a bomb site as everything was collated on the friday morning.  Boxes of bottles, electrolyte powder, gels, noddles, condiments, cooking stuff, utensils, dry-weather clothing, cold weather clothing, wet weather clothing, below zero clothing.  4 sets of knicks and gloves.  Microwave, stove, kettle, sandwich toaster.  Lights, batteries, chargers, spare batteries, double sets of day and night goggles.  The uber important contacts.  Bike, tools, more tools, spare wheels, spare tires, sealant, more sealant, spare chain cut-to-length, spare magic links, brake pads, bottles of lube, rags, pressure-spray kit. Not to mention camping equipment.  Most of it i was hoping i wouldn't need.  However the forecast suggested otherwise.  Zero during the night and rain expected. Terrific.

It rained all Friday morning as we squashed the above-mentioned into the car and after attending to a few errands in Sydney traffic (grrr) headed down to chilly Canberra, stopping at Goulburn en route to marvel at slopes covered in snow which had come down only hours earlier.  By the time we made Stromlo and our designated pit area the clouds had fortunately blown through and we basked in pleasant afternoon sunshine.  We counted ourselves lucky that the race was not held any earlier, as in the two days prior the mountain had received over 50 mm of rain. 

As in 2010, I was sharing a pit area, but this time with Ben, nervously anticipating his first 24 solo.  Ben’s father Paul was to contribute pit duties.  Anita was going to try to channel the “pit-bitch from hell” mentality, and keep the stops as short as possible.  Sally, who helped handle me in 2010 also very kindly offered to help out again, and eventually found us despite the fact that I had somehow left the mbl phone in Sydney.  The pit was cramped, but three dedicated people servicing two riders is a good combination, and prevents things from getting too boring once the lap splits start to blow out.  Mike and GK would also pitch in when they could, but they had their own race to deal with.

Anita and I opted for a hotel room the night before, in part as I was still struggling to rid myself of flu and figured a good night sleep was imperative.  I didn’t get it, constantly waking with the urge to cough and dwelling on two months of preparation being undone by poor health.  But I tried to console myself with a quote along the lines of “many great things having been done on no sleep”.  I was hardly cock-a-hoop as I shoveled down the largest breakfast I’ve had since 3peaks.  We got back to Stromlo in good time, but those last few hours before race start disappear mighty fast (= stress and grumpiness), in spite of the pit having been largely sorted the day prior. 

It is always a great relief once the gun fires, as at least there is nothing more to be done apart from do one job only - ride the damn thing.  And those first few laps feel like magic.  Fresh legs, consciously not try to hammer.  But it is easy to overextend and go out too hard, to which I plead guilty.  The course consisted of an hour-glass configuration; Red lap (12 km – climb the mountain, descend the mountain), and Blue lap (14 km – flatter with countless rock garden technicalities, but with almost the same amount of cumulative climbing).  I thought I knew the course, but the red lap threw up a surprise.  On the trip down the mountain, after the Slyline and Luge sectors, instead of ploughing into the lower Luge section, a short climb up a fire road emptied us onto the massively bermed and technical lower section of the downhill course.  Whilst we were routed round the worst aerial features, there was one significant A-line B-line decision to be made.  Not having seen it before and with riders up my clacker I took the B-line, which was technically no problem, but results in stalling before re-entering the main line, and consequently robs you of 10 seconds every passage.  Doing tidy splits in such an event is all about the combination of countless marginal gains.  This one I was determined to sort out later on.  The blue lap in contrast was exactly as expected, except worse in the sense that multiple sections that were usually of no consequence were already soft, jelly like, pooled, or trickling rivers, and within a few laps and several thousand sets of wheels (450 sets of wheels on track at any one time), turned quickly to almost indescribable bogs.  To make matters worse, by mid afternoon the rain had started and fell consistently for an hour of two.  This was going to be one tough grind.

By mid-late afternoon, with fatigue well and truly setting in things started to go a little bit wrong in the handling department.  I had already had my first “off “on the red lap, counter intuitively whilst climbing up the mountain when the front wheel washed out on a corner.  Slight cramp immediately bit as I got to my feet.  Later that lap I was focused on riding the one A-line that eluded me.  On approach I was passed by a young-un with skate helmet, bulging backpack with tripod strapped on, and “PRESS” emblazoned across his back.  I asked if he was taking the A-line and would he mind if I followed.  Sure, he said, and I followed in pursuit.  I’m guessing he was out to show off his all-mountain machine and skills, as when we got to the line he hucked straight over the top of the rampart with aplomb, disappearing down the face.  I tried to pick the same line 2 seconds later but was not prepared for either the steepness or angle of the drop.  I mono’d on the front wheel before my angle relative to the stonework brought me undone.  As I picked myself and the bike up a rider who was following my line did exactly the same thing.  Fortunately neither of us broke bike nor body.  And PRESS dude was nowhere to be seen.  I skinned my elbow, as well as taking strips off my right side, from the buttock all the way down to below the knee.  Yowch!  This was going to make things interesting as time marched on.  As I looked back to peruse the drop I realized that the little punk had not exactly guided me down the easiest part of the line, which I subsequently saw another rider take.  Approaching from the left would have avoided the rampart altogether and lined you up for a more sane run down the ragged ramp.  Major bugger.  My race had almost finished there and then.  I rued not getting to the course earlier on the Friday and doing one last reccie of the red lap, where all of this could have been inspected properly, which I had originally planned on doing with Anita.  In any case, it was B-line only from now on.

Re-runs of what had just transpired – the stupidity of running previously unsighted A-lines, and the fact that the same thing happened 3 years ago in my first tilt at 24solo (apparently I had learnt nothing) – ran through my head as I rolled bloodied into the pits.  However, there was really nothing to be done but get back out there for the trench warfare horrors that were unfolding on the blue lap.  I could handle all the technicalities on the blue lap, but the effort required to navigate the ooze was exhausting, not to mention giving me annoying chain suck and increasing the likelihood of breaking a chain or ripping off a derailleur.  The early part of the red lap was also turning to the same quagmire consistency, to the point where by nightfall the chain was requiring hosing down and re-lubing regardless of the lap completed.  But Anita, Sally and Paul soon had the process sorted and efficiently got to the task as soon as I rolled in.  One would help me feed whilst the other two attended the chain.  Most of the early pits were only a few minutes, but by nightfall approx. 5 min a pit was more the norm.  In any case once fatigue sets in you are grateful for any time off the bike (and next to the heater) you can get.

It was late afternoon when I got my first place check.  I was a bit crest-fallen to hear I was only running 5th, after bragging about podium possibilities.  This was on top of the fact that I found the hours between the 2 and 7 hour mark really difficult.  I thought I’d been running pretty hot.  I was trying to maintain some sort of pace but realized I was losing the battle.  I was already feeling pretty shattered but was only 6 hours in.  Man, this was going to a tough one to graft out.  If this feeling continued I was going to struggle holding position, let alone climbing the ladder.

The inevitable creep of night is where the “race” really starts in my book.  I reminded myself that there was a long way to go, and that if I wanted to survive it I just had to do my own thing, look after myself, and avoid any more nasty offs.  Speaking of offs, I had another three in various sections of bog, some sections of which I gave up riding and was happy to simply walk.  The last 2/3rds are a measure of how you function running on perpetual empty.  If you don’t keep pouring in the food, an implosion is inevitable.  There is the discipline of keeping moving and the discipline of keeping eating.  Surviving the 8 hour mark was a real milestone.  One third down.  At some stage before midnight (I think) I caught Ben.  He looked pretty shattered but seemed to really pick up as we rode the top of the mountain together, and descended back to the pit.  He had promised himself the luxury of a toilet stop at the end of the lap.  Its little treats such as these that you sometimes have to bribe yourself with to get through another lap.  I was worried whether he’d actually be able to keep circulating, and knew he’d be devastated if he packed it in.

Getting past midnight was another milestone for me.  Halfway!  Despite a few more light evening showers, come midnight it looked like we were at least past the bad weather as stars started to dominate the sky.  My undershirt, short-sleeve jersey, light arm-warmers and a change of socks and gloves, addition of gillet, coupled with grazing on slices of warmed pizza and lots of warm noodle juice had me toasty enough on most of the course, despite the temp approaching zero.  A dusting of frost was visible on the grass at the top of the mountain as dawn approached.  Just got to keep moving. 

In these meditative night laps, where rider numbers really thinned out, I found my mood improved.  Somewhere in the early am I’d moved up to fourth and had my eye on slowly but surely closing on third place.  This was good motivation.  I focused some more and felt that I’d subsequently put down some handy laps in a row.  So I was not surprised at all to hear that I’d hauled in third as dawn approached.  I was, however, surprised to hear that I was suddenly up into second, and maybe even starting to close on first.  A few up the road must have metaphorically fallen into holes big time.  In two laps I closed another 10 minutes on first place.  Whilst my red lap splits were right on the knocker of 60 minutes (almost to the second), I was being punished on the blue.  Some bogs out the back of blue I’d manage to grind on one lap, then have to walk the next. 

During the last third of the race my brain was coughing as well.  I’d struggle to estimate how many laps to go, forget what lap I was on, what the time was at the last pit etc.  All my mental energy was being saved for staying on the track down the numerous technical runs.  I’d try to focus on remembering one or two requests for the next pit, only to realize half way through the next lap that I’d forgotten to mention any of them.  Can’t have been too important!  All my physical energy was being dosed out carefully to muscle this rock step, another section of rough, or to summon just enough punch to float over the next bog.  Despite a spectacular sunrise, psychologically the arrival of day failed (again) to give me the lift solo riders often mention (although the birds going bezerk in the pre-dawn WAS exciting).  Countless riders now back on the course came flying past at light speed, accentuating the reality that I was creeping – I just hadn’t realized how badly! 

Ultimately, Mr Welch, who prevailed in my category, was simply too good.  38 minutes was as close as I got to him with 4 hours remaining.  To make matters worse, in the first of my last 4 laps I started to get some left knee pain.  It disappeared when standing, but was giving me increasingly more grief in the seated position.  When I rolled into the pits I explained that we had a major problem, and wondered whether my buffer over third would be sufficient; “Patello-femoral” knee pain was immediately diagnosed by Anita – nothing to worry about.  I popped a Nurafen which I think kicked in a little, but the pain was ever present for the remainder, such that nearly all of the pedaling I did on the last three laps had to be done standing up.  This actually didn’t bother me too much as at least my lower back gave me no grief in this upright position.  A can of red bull and Mikey encouraging me with “Jizz In My Pants!” yelled at maximum volume brought a smile to my face as I set off on what I knew would be my last tour of the blue lap, to give me a round total of 24 – in 24.  In the end, Mr Welch covered 25 laps, effectively finishing 1 hr 10 min up the road.  I had a safety net of 2 laps over third place, so all I had to do in that last lap was stay upright, the importance of which my pit had been emphasizing for some time.  The checkpoint crew half way round the blue lap, as they’d done just previously on the red lap, gave the Soggy Bottom Boys jersey, in particular, a huge cheer.  As every rider on course returned with a colorfully spackled posterior the jersey really resonated with riders, supporters and officials alike.  I should say that the camaraderie and support out on course, from team and solo riders alike, was pretty special, as I’ve found before when running solo.  That solo tail-plate is gold!

It was a great emotional release to finish – teary eyed as seems to be my manner in these things.  It was lovely to be able to hug Anita and not have to go out for another lap!  It was also nice to realize that after 6 years of racing mountain bikes I’d finally get to stand on a podium, even if it was only an age category one.  But before that we got to see Ben come home.  Although he’d gifted himself a few longer transitions in the night, get back on track he did to the point where he clawed his way to 6th in the same group category with 20 laps.  A fantastic effort.  I think it’s an achievement Ben can be immensely proud about.  Both of us will acknowledge that doing one of these things is absolutely dependent on good pit support, so a huge thank you and hats off to Anita, Sally and Paul, who so selflessly gave up their weekend (and Saturday night), provided emotional support, enthusiasm, great food variety, proffering just the right amount and type of information (including intelligence gathered on rivals), and who didn’t miss a beat with either of us or our filthy machines.  You made it impossible for me not to keep getting out on track, and it would have been simply impossible without you.  Anita gets special mention as well, for putting up with what has become a bit of an obsession over the last few months/years.  Thanks also to cameo support in the form of Felix, and Mikey and GK, who as a pair also did a great job of knocking off 19 laps whilst lending the odd hand.

For the record, the winner, in what was a stacked field was the three-time world champ and 24hr freak Mr English (Merida/Flight Center), with 31 laps.  We think that was about his 15th consecutive 24 hr race win.  He was pushed all the way this time by the current European and English champ, Mr Page (Wiggle), just 20 minutes down, also on 31 laps (an insanely small margin for such an event).  Mr Page reckons it's the hardest race he’s ever done.  He was in some distress at the presentation and had to be supported by two people to even walk or mount the podium.  Rounding out third was another Aussie, Mr Hall (Radical Lights Factory Team), with 30 laps.  The Canadian champ, Mr Wallace (Kona), runner up to Mr English in 2010 and my pre-race favorite, was a solid 4th with 29 laps.  Of the 100 odd solo starters I’m pretty stoked to have finished 13th outright, and to have survived a course hailed as particularly difficult by credentialed company.  Actually this placing is a little flattering as there were half a dozen riders easily of higher caliber who DNF’d or DNS’d.  That said I reckon I was probably the only top 20 rider running the one machine, which added significantly to pit dead-time given the conditions (my pits totaled 1 hr 28 min).  This also means that my bike probably travelled further than any other bike on course for the weekend!  Physically I’m probably the least beaten up I’ve been, in what is my 3rd solo outing, so that’s encouraging. 

My strategy of flying under the radar worked.  A chat post podium with Messer’s Welch (1st) and Selkrig (3rd) confirmed that they had no idea who I was or where I’d come from, although, both being Canberran’s, they knew most of the other contenders.  The final result was a true reflection of Mr Welch’s current superiority, as he bested me in the Kowalski (90 km), just a few weeks ago, by 13 minutes.  Interestingly, at solo worlds in 2010 I had the wood on him, posting 19 laps to his 18, so he has really improved over the last couple of years, to the point where he picked up silver in his age group category at 2012 worlds in Italy earlier this year!  One to keep an eye on in the future.

Having packed up the camp we bid the others farewell as Anita, Sally and I headed for a comfy hotel in Canberra where a fancy meal was rounded out, finally, by a solid sleep for all of us.  Anita and I discussed all sorts of aspects of the race whilst driving home on Monday, without actually committing to having a crack at worlds next year, but we’d both have to acknowledge that such an eventuality is now a possibility, despite my midnight assurance, whilst in the middle of purgatory, that I was cured.

 I was easily the slowest starter of the early top 5.  Redman and Thompson, in particular, were laying down hot splits only to DNF.  Selkrig had a bad patch in the early hours which coincided with me setting some consistent splits.  The problem was that my rhythm never picked up a gear in the morning.  Pit components of each lap (bottom trace) show that running 2 bikes might have made a difference.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Kowalski follow-through

In my reportage of the Kowalski it was remiss of me not to acknowledge a few things.  Firstly GK and Mikey also very much enjoyed the course.  GK in particular – and that never happens.  They rolled the loop together and had an incident free run (unlike Ben who accumulated 4 offs), although they seemed more focused on the finer features – the light through the trees, the scents and sounds of spring, the resident kangaroos, and basking bluetoungues. 

Secondly, or chronologically firstly, the Queanbeyan hotel we lodged in the night before provided the identical room to that shared by the same cohort two years ago for the inaugural “Capital Punishment” enduro, which also started at Kowen’s forest.  Once again, fitting 4 bodies, bikes and assorted paraphernalia into the one room was a challenge, although at least this time it didn’t rain at maximum amplitude for the entire night, which was of great relief.  Anita can be well pleased about her decision not to try sharing the room, but to arrive the following day (A woman’s got to know her limitations).  Pre-dawn preparations were punctuated by some interesting tunes on RAGE, on the flashy flat-screen TV – surely the only upgrade the room has had since our previous visit.  “Jizz-IMP” had us all in stitches, setting the scene for what proved to be a very enjoyable day for all.  Soggy bottoms indeed.  Thank you RAGE.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Preparation S, Kowalski-style

New to the enduro calendar, the inaugural Kowalski Classic would meld sections of Sparrow Hill and the neighboring Kowen’s Forest, to produce a 90 km loop with lots and lots of wiggle.  Anyone who has ridden the Mont24 (which in recent years has used both venues) knew what to expect, and we were not disappointed.

And it falls just 2 weekends before the Scott24 solo, so would be a good hit out to see where I’m at relative to the competition.  “The Competition” primarily equating to one rider in particular, alluded to in my Convict100 post but whom I will refrain from naming here, as I’m trying to fly under the radar, you see.  Long  story short; in 2010 24solo worlds he won the 35-40 age group category, finishing 7th outright, posting 21 laps to my 19 (44th outright), and has since greyed sufficiently to now compete in my age division for domestic events (40-50).  He seems to win or podium in everything he has competed in since (which is most weekends), and at last years Scott24 finished 5th outright, topping the masters podium, a feat he often achieves with daylight second.  In short, this guy is a bit of a machine; good engine, good skills.  He is also foolish enough to post a well-written blog with his name attached to it, which makes it easy to see; which races he is crushing, his recent experiences in the brutal 2012 Trans-Alp stage race in Austria, and where his weaknesses lie (only one in this department, discussed later).  In the lead up to the Kowalski I’ve been telling all and sundry that I will be giving him a run for his money at the Scott24.

Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, as with rose-tinted goggles I can boldly state that back in 2010 another lap or two might have been possible.  But it can be delusional as well, and I’m starting to suspect that my mouth might already have bitten off more than my body can chew, if the Kowalski is any indicator.

Having been humbled by The Competition to the tune of 18 minutes during the Convict100 in May, whilst in good condition on a course that suits my meagre abilities (although not necessarily the attributes of a 26er), I was keen to see how we compared over a very different 90 km.  The answer turned out to be approx. 33 minutes slower.  The Competition cruised home in 4:34 (3rd in division, 11th outright), to my 5:07 (13th in division, 48th outright, of ~300).

I started in the second wave and had to burn a few matches early to gain entry to the single-track ahead of a bunch of riders whom shouldn’t really have seeded themselves so highly (so I arrogantly thought).  The Competition, who also nominated to start in the second wave thought better of it when it came to the crunch, starting on the tail-end of the elite field (wave 1).  A smart move, but probably not making much difference in the end.  The devil on such a course is in the detail, and the detail in this case was literally hundreds, if not thousands of corners which would have to be negotiated.  I am always a bit rusty at the start of these things and it took me probably 10 or 15 km to get into the groove, but I was genuinely enjoying the trails.  Corners are great when you rail them with a semblance of competence and efficiency.  But come about the 30-35 km mark the engine room was having trouble delivering the power I had started with.  Coupled with the chronically sore lower back, which faithfully shows when I go hard on the mtb, I started to lose a bit of focus, riding the brakes too heavily and not leaning the thing over enough.  Riders I had crushed earlier started to file back past me, one by one, and there was little I could do about it, apart from bid them fair well with the ear-splitting squeal of my rotors as I butchered yet another corner.

Navigation was a bit of an issue as well.  Most of the course was well marked, but at one stage, with two riders hot on my heels, I somehow missed a RHT at a junction of single tracks, and blasted through another halk K of descending wiggles only to be spat directionally onto an unmarked fire road.  Another half K descending later it was obvious that we’d (that is, I’d) messed up.  With curses aplenty from my companions, who subsequently left me in their dust, we about-faced and had to grind everything in reverse to regain what should have been a speedy right hander into a lovely traverse section.  Coupled with my aching back this ~5 min penalty tempered my enthusiasm for trying to hold position, and I rolled into the 50 km transition seriously questioning whether I wanted another 40 km of this shit.

I was running a no-stop strategy but did pick up half a banana from the basket as I passed through.  A few Kms later I actually got off for a few minutes to relieve myself (no probs with hydration), and lie on the ground and arch my back, all whilst more riders cruised by.  The 75 km feed couldn’t come soon enough.  I was well hydrated but underdone with regards effort expended and carbohydrates taken in.  During the first half of the race there were hardly any stretches of non-wiggly trail making feeding extremely difficult, but I should have taken more care to ensure I topped up.  At the final feed a mouthful of chips was washed down with half a banana and an orange quarter, to add to the two Cliff bars I’d consumed thus far.  A little later the first caffeinated gel was consumed, and then magically, at the 80 km mark, the legs finally came good.  Suddenly the pain in the lower back was gone, I was riding 2 gears heavier, and during the last 10 km about 10 riders were reeled in one by one and dispatched with.  This was the sort of riding I love, the sort where you and the bike somehow become one.  The only problem was that by the time this state was attained the race was over as far as The Competition was concerned.

My major off-piste diversion can’t really be held accountable for a below-expectation performance as subsequently, in the company of another rider I (we) unwittingly missed another turn, which this time more than compensated for my earlier screw-up.  Half a Km later we were pleasantly surprised to meet riders whom had passed us a little earlier, turning back onto the trail we were running.  Classic!  At the end most riders had tales of assorted navigational errors.  I’m sure the organisers will iron out some of these bumps for next year.  At the finish my clock only read 89 km to the 90 expected, so all in all the 5:07 is probably a little flattering.

Ride of the day IMO goes to Ben, preparing for his first tilt at a 24solo and my soon-to-be stable mate in pit-lane, who on far fewer Kms lead up, and suffering his own blend of navigational hiccups did a time of 5:23 to cover 93 km.  Accounting for a 4 km difference we did nearly the same time.  So great ride Ben!

If nothing else my goal of flying under the radar of The Competition has been well met.  Although a bit demoralized I am still hopeful that I might put in a good show at the longer format that is 24hr racing.  If The Competition starts fast, as might befit the style of one with a chance of genuine overall podium honours, then maybe, as has happened in the past, he’ll suffer a bad patch in the wee hours, which might allow me to give him a late scare, assuming I run a smooth, intelligent, incident-free race – that’s a lot of assumptions (and pressure) BTW, in a game where a lot can go wrong.  But having done some reconnaissance of the Stromlo course being served up I’m at least confident that accumulated laps will be a little kinder to the body than they were 2 years ago.  At the very least I want to finally tick 20 laps at Stromlo, and run all the way through if possible.  Fingers crossed.


Monday, 24 September 2012

Heron Island Membrane Protein Workshop

....emphasis on Workshop, of course.

Seriously one of the best conferences i've ever been to, both in terms of location and quality of speakers, and have I mentioned the snorkeling?

Heron Island lies about 75 km off the coast of Gladstone, measures some 800 by 300 meters, although the "island" bit (max elevation 3 m above sea level) is in effect the crown of a reef many times its size.  At low tide the reef is exposed, whilst at high tide it is a few meters under. 

The island was settled back in the 1800s, initially for the purpose of harvesting turtles (these ran out fast), then as a whaling outpost, before being bought for tourism in the 1900s.  It boasts accommodation for some 300 people, and about 100 000 black noddys, and about 1/4 of the island is set aside as a scientific research station.  The emphasis is now very much on eco-tourism, with a strict "no-take" policy.  Well worth a visit even if you've no conference to lure you there.  I think i can say with confidence that i'll be back.