Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Dry-roasted in Ovens; 3peaks 2013

The "northern" 3peaks loop looked a grade easier than its southern cousin - 5 km shorter and, amazingly, only 400 m less in altitude gained.  I say amazingly as, looking at the route profiles, I failed to appreciate that the lower peaks are complemented by lower starting points.  That said, 230 km and 4000 m of up shouldn't be underestimated, especially if a scorcher was on the cards.

I considered myself fitter than at the same time last year, and my back was in A1 condition, so I was reasonably confident of giving 8:30 a nudge, and expecting the course record to be dropped by 30 min, down to about 7:30.  Only one of these predictions came true.

We were quite a big bunch this year, packing out two units at the Falls Creek Country Club, and another (Fletch and crew) at the Viking Alpine Lodge.  The afternoon of the day before was gone in a flash, soaked up by unpacking, lugging, fiddling with numbers, transponders, bottles, sorting valet caches, final bike checks and trying to get dinner happening.  

Down to the start-line we went, thankful that a clear dry morning beckoned for the mass field mega descent (approx. 1500 entrants this year, 500 up on last year).  Tellingly, conditions were warm enough not to require starting in a gilet. Anita and I again cruised the first 30 km together before bidding each other safe journey at the base of the 7 km Tawonga gap climb, the first and easiest of the 3 peaks on the menu.  Knowing that climbing is my real strength I tapped a solid rhythm, although struggled to maintain quite the same “easy” tempo I recalled from the previous year.  That said, when the numbers were crunched I was surprised to see that I posted the second quickest Tawonga split (3rd quickest last year), about a minute ahead of the big guns who, starting probably 10 minutes earlier, were already motoring towards Buffalo.  Burning too hot on Tawonga with the heat rising was probably my first mistake of the day.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Tawonga descent, downing a bar and gel on the way, and at the base fell into a superb group of equally matched riders who, with little prompting, morphed into rolling pace-line formation. Eight worker bees rotated like clockwork as we cruised at 38-42 km/hr through Bright and onwards to the base of Mt Buffalo.  This was without doubt the most pleasant part of the day’s festivities, and brought back fond memories of country handicaps of 20 years ago.  Another group was ever visible up the road, which we finally tagged on the approach ramps of Buffalo at the 70 km mark.  The only rider I recognized in this group was Chris, who informed me that he was already feeling a bit toasted, and that Gavin was way ahead. 

I spent the first half of the Buffalo climb (20 km at 5-6%) chatting with two blokes (Damo and Paul), both medicos, from Newcastle.  It was a very sensible pace, as required for non-stop chit-chat.  On the upper slopes we got caught by a posse of 4 identically jersey'd riders, and jumped on.  It meant upping the tempo a little, but it was still comfortable (just) in the knowledge that the top was only about 8 km away, and the pace was just quick enough to realize the benefit of a draft. With a few km to go the lead riders started to trickle back down the mountain.  Remarkably, Nick Mitchell, who has "won" the last three editions of 3peaks was not one of them.  We finally saw him (astride the characteristic hum of mega deep dish carbon singles) in a group of about 15 at "the notch", the top of the climb proper, and he didn't look happy.  I think by this stage in all previous editions he has been by himself and able to dictate his own tempo.  By now he must have known he had a fight on his hands and many willing combatants.  Such a powerful group was going to monster the extensive flat valley roads to come.  Post event analysis revealed that the Novocastrians and I did the climb in 1:13 to the Mitchell group’s 1:10.  Most encouragingly at the time was knowing that we were probably only 10-15 minutes behind the heads of state, despite having started at least 5-10 minutes behind them.

At the feed I filled one bottle before about-facing and devouring another bar before the notch where the true descent got under way.  The top 1/4 was complicated by liberal smatterings of light gravel.  On many corners you had to pick your line wisely.  I periodically passed ET guys and gal still climbing this sector and hoped they had registered the surface for the return trip.  Overall the buffalo descent is a cracker, much better surfaced than I remembered.  That said I was getting tired having to concentrate for such a stretch, and was relieved when it was over, although the legs were less thrilled at having to get going again.

I rolled into the lunch stop, (Porepunkah at 120 km), with about 3:55 on the clock, filled bottles, swigged another, took a piss, plunged head under tap (it was heating up) and had a quick re-sort of bulging pockets.  I was keen to keep rolling with the Novo’s, as we seemed equally matched, but I also wasn't keen to wait around for all the fiddling that was going on, more sunscreen to be applied etc, so I decided to get rolling, leaving transition alone.  This was my next mistake.   Instead of cruising and waiting for a bunch whilst feeding, my ego got the better of me and I spent the next handful of km chasing down a small bunch I could see up the road.  Once gained we got a rolling pace line going, but the overall mood was less harmonious, and 20 km later when we changed tack at the appropriately named outpost of "Ovens", any cohesion we had went straight out the window.  

Most annoying was a youth who insisted we reverse the rotation towards the center line on the grounds of countering a breeze, which judging by the absolutely motionless tall grass was so slight it wasn’t worth fussing over.  In any case he should have realized that there were too many old shagged dogs in this posse for new tricks.  The frequent rollers, dead surface and the sweltering heat did the rest and it all went to hell.  Our group of 10 now inched up the road in a shambolic scattering of ones and twos, only to all become reacquainted and exchange evil eyes at the next feed, Running Creek, with 170 km under the belt.  

There was no escaping the fact that the heat was now a major factor.  Clear sky, no shade, reflection off the road, negligible breeze, and temperatures on Garmins registering high 30s and low 40s.  Rolling along was like poking your face into a hair dryer.  Bottles were warm and as appealing as tepid sea water.  In fact, throwing a few tea bags into the mix would have made the revolting sports drink on offer more palatable (I suspect “Hydralyte” made few friends by sponsoring this event).
It was on the 4km climb just prior to the feed, which transitioned us from the Ovens valley to the Mt Beauty valley, that my engine started to stutter.  A distinct lack of power in my legs and tightening in my chest confirmed that I was having a really hard time just staying cool enough to function.  

I felt better after another good dunking under the tap, but was having trouble forcing down more electrolyte fluid.  A spell prostrate under a tree was probably in order, but I foolishly decided to keep the ball rolling, so shoved off and was quickly joined by a few others for the 30 km shade-less death-march up to Mt Beauty. Within a few km only a couple of us were capable of working, with the rest simply sitting on and trying to recover.  It was in this stretch with about 50 km to go, that I got my first twinges of cramp, and the dull pain in my chest was periodically back, so big chunks of this stretch were once again more about survival than pace setting.

There was relief in pulling into the Mt Beauty feed at the 200 km mark, but none in the knowledge that a 30 km climb separated us from the finish.  Once again I gave the head and helmet a good dunking, and tried to consume another gel and the rest of a food bar, but swallowing anything was an effort in itself.  An attempt to have the second slash for the day produced naught but 3 drops - possibly my smallest ever piss - which was in vast contradiction to how bloated I felt.  

Loaded with two full bottles of electrolyte, my last food bar, the last three of my seven gels, ribbons of Mr Panky’s shredded jersey hanging off the bars (our way of including Greg in a lap of the course), a raccoon under my saddle, and the clock at 6:40, I rolled out of transition and onto the lower slopes of the climb to Falls Creek. 
At Buffalo-pace I knew I should be able to knock this puppy off in about 1:40, but this possibility evaporated hours ago.  I figured that just groveling through the motions should get me there in 2 hrs, to finish comfortably inside the 9 hr mark, and actually not far off the 8:30 I had vaguely penciled into my head at the start.  The reality was that the final ascent would possibly constitute the most dour 2 hrs 12 min I’ve experienced on a bike, getting me home only a whisker inside 9 hrs!

Only the previous day i had marveled at the shallowness of this very same climb as we drove to the village. Two km in I was now eating my words as I unclipped and started the first of at least 10 episodes of walking.  Such activity was normally reserved for tail-end pinches in mtb epics.  I was in trouble.  If this climb had been the more sun-exposed, dryer and considerably steeper “Back Of Falls” I honestly would not have been able to finish.  

Much of the ensuing km were spent out of the saddle, simply letting 68 kg of body weight turn the cranks in a low gear at 12-14 km/hr.  Cramping and gravity would eventually bring me to a stop and I’d be back to walking.  Trying to spin a smaller gear in the saddle simply locked me up sooner.  The chest pain was another worry.  Had I gone berserk for a minute I reckon I could have induced a hearty on the spot - might be time to consult the cardiologist!  I wasn’t sure if it was heat, electrolyte imbalance, or a combination of both, but I knew that my engine was totally roasted and would only get me home if nursed carefully.

For most of the climb I had a companion in the form of a heavily bearded “Darryl” (quite a character) whose strategy, in contrast to mine, was to keep a tiny gear grinding.  We exchanged positions and expletives about a dozen times.  It would have been comical were we not both suffering so badly.  We took time out at a couple of spots to sponge-bathe in the chilled water of rivulets running down the side of the road.  Not normally considered a good idea I consumed at least two bottles of this ice-cold mountain water.  It got me home!  With about 6 km to go the temperature noticeable dropped as some cloud cover eventually rolled over.  My last bout of cramp was my most spectacular, with both sides of one leg locked up for some minutes as I lay on the side of the road, just over a km from the finish.  The sound of rock’n roll from the village PA was just audible.  So close yet so far, it really was hell.  

Despite completely falling to pieces I somehow limped home with 83rd best time.  My Mt Buffalo climbing companions, who had been more pedestrian (=sensible) on the flat sectors and at the rest stops passed me on the lower slopes and tapped out the climb 30 min quicker, both coming home in 8:26 and finishing in 31st and 32nd position.  

What a relief!  Darryl laid on the beer (and the stories!) in the finishing plaza as a procession of ashen-faced riders trickled in.  Kev was next from our crew to emerge, circa 9:25 (despite a puncture – I’ll bet he was pleased he stuck with the clincher option), then Gav at 9:45 (whom I unknowingly passed at the top of Buffalo), along with other ETers Paul (9:30) then Matt and Fletch at 9:50.  Congrats guys for going under 10!  The trio of Anita, Ham and GK came home in 10:20.  Again, great rides by all three.  Anita, who marvels at my penchant for hills was especially chuffed to know that she had bettered my last climb split!  And especially big congrats to Andy who, having shed 9 kg since Xmas but still hovering about 10 kgs above his racing weight, paced himself sensibly and clawed his way home in 11:45.  Superb effort!

Whilst Fletch ended up with the medics at the finish citing giddiness, 4 of our guys didn’t make it over the line.  Smarty got caught up in stupid bingle at Ovens and, grazed and battered, soldiered on for another 60 km to the 200 km mark before seeking the medical tent and the sag wagon.  Hoggy did it even tougher, with repeated bouts of vomiting preventing eating or drinking, and ended up on a drip, also at the 200 km mark.  Chris had been suffering all day with the runs and a racing heart, and took shelter only 10 km from the finish before putting the call through for a pick up.  Carl was also on the verge of collapsing, and similarly got into the car with Chris, just a handful of km from the finish. On reflection perhaps i should have done the same.

Testament to how brutal conditions were, about 20% of the field DNF’d (as compared to about 5% last year).  I think the big guys did it toughest today, with hearts working overtime in an attempt to keep big bodies cool (somehow the elephants ended up with the big ears and we homosapiens missed out!).  Unanimous consensus was that conditions made the event way harder than the previous year, in spite of the course change.  Nick Mitchell, for instance (another “big unit”), couldn’t even match his 2012 time, coming home about 20th this year.  

I know I’ve had some meltdowns due to heat in the past (the 2010 and 2011 Highland Flings comes to mind), but none quite as overwhelming as today.  As we reflected the days events at the pub Fletch mentioned what I’d been thinking, which also mirrored my impressions after the first two editions (last year was simply an aberration); that the event, regardless of format, is perhaps a few hours over the ledger of being hard to be really enjoyed.  I know a bit of masochism is one of the ingredients that contribute to the satisfaction of overcoming adversity. But I wonder, having done all 4 editions now, whether in future years I’ll have the drive to want to go through it all again (might require some arm twisting).  Maybe I’d have a more upbeat take on the day had I ridden more intelligently, or tempered my ambition, given the oppressive conditions.  I’m putting this down while it’s still fresh in my mind, because I know how easily I’ll forget, but geez it was hard!


  1. The mind is a wonderful thing - you may well have forgotten how painful it all was in just a few days. Congratulations all. Sounds like quite an epic. So is that 3 out of 4 that have been brutal? Ben

  2. Yep, but the first two due to the combo of steeper climbs (original course) and inclement weather. The first one in partic was a doozy with solid rain for most of the day (hypothermia etc). The second edition only had solid rain for 1/2 the day!

  3. Dave Bicycle NSW have a 116km Jindy epic (late March)with a hill climb TT and small crit the day before. Maybe a more enjoyable weekend to target next year, considering it will save 7hrs or so of travel time as well.