Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Keep calm and carry on – Chocky Foot 7hr at Taree

Every year “Chocolate Foot” host a series of 7 and 8 hour races, the Single Track Mind Series, which others have spoken highly of, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  The first was at Kiwarrak Forest, just south of Taree, approx. 4 hrs north of Sydney.  I arrived late on the Saturday arvo and just managed to squeeze in a recon lap before the sunlight dipped.  Very flowy 10 km loop with zillions of curves through relatively dense eucalypt forest, the odd plunge into cool rainforest gullies with short pinch climbs out, but overall very little climbing and very few technicalities in terms of rough stuff.  I was sure to learn a thing or two about getting round corners come the end.  The prediction of race day being hot (I struggle in the heat) was sure to make piloting the course even more challenging.

On top of the usual gaggle of teams in various formats, 65 solo riders were registered, including a good dollop of NSW and ACT talent.  English, on the back of being crowned national marathon champion the weekend before (that’s 2 crowning’s in three weeks for JE) and McDonald would again being going blow for blow.  In the Masters category (29 riders) were Messer’s James, McAvoy, Adams and Welch.  The form: James (Supermaster who has won just about everything, including all 5 Chocky rounds last year); McAvoy (James’ fellow-ACT understudy and 40-44 favorite for WEMBO in Oct);  Adams (King of the Convict, who should be peaking to defend his crown the following weekend); Welch (3rd outright in the Hunter valley 7 hr the previous weekend and has really stepped it up this year on the back of consistent 500+ km weeks.  I figured a good ride might net me 5th.

I camped at the venue, dined at “Snax-on-Trax” and awoke early to cart my esky (containing 12 bottles of goo) to transition where I plonked it next to Welch’s table (“you do realize you are next to your nemesis”, Wendy pointed out).  Ditto-similar trips with spare wheels, and a box of bits (spares, tools, gels etc).  By the time I got my eyes in, kitted up, and checked the tyres (hadn’t touched the bike since SoloNats) the race briefing had started, and in no time we were under way.  In the self-seeding shemozzle that ensued I didn’t go berserk but settled mid-pack as the singletrack was engaged.

I could periodically catch glimpses of Welch up ahead, but by the time half of the first lap had passed I was by my lonesome.  But this was perfect as the riding was so much fun!  Threading each curve was a complex equation requiring tweaking of speed, for/aft weighting, assessing angle, camber, surface, tree trunks, with an eye on entry into the next line.  Totally engaging, and totally satisfying when I put most of it together for a smooth outcome.  Humbling when bits of it were miscalculated – but still useful for next passage.  I’m no shredder like the top riders, but I seem to be improving.  I was pleasantly reminded that THIS was why I loved mountain biking.  Mesmerized by the process the laps started to accrue (approx. 35 min splits).  Periodically the spell is broken by a trip through transition where a very brief stop allowed a spent bidon to be exchanged with a new. 

And so the first three hours breezed by.  I was very much in the groove and enjoying it all when out of nowhere Welch’s apparition emerged ahead.  I almost had to pinch myself.  He appeared to be laboring.  I was half steeling myself for the inevitable indignity of being lapped by the leaders, and half expected that Welch might also be well on the way to lapping me later in the piece.  Curiously, however, during the first couple of trips through transition the arrangement of bottles on Welch’s table appeared untouched.  Suddenly it all made sense.  Someone hadn’t been drinking the way he should have, and even though he is typically a good performer in the heat it must have caught up with him.  He was also about to lose his saddlebag, which I pointed out to him as I popped passed and continued at my workman-like pace.  I didn’t want to go crazy just yet with 4 hours remaining

Transition came and went, and I approached the one part of the course where the trail looped back on itself and provided a veiled sighting through the undergrowth of riders behind (or ahead), and there he was – not dead and buried after all, as I naively expected.  How dare he fight back!  Game on.  I decided to step it up a bit and squeezed out a quicker lap.  As I again entered this double-back sector I counted in my head to about 60 before the tracks again kissed, and there was that distinctive jersey flitting through the trees in exactly the same position.  Whatever trouble he was having had passed and the pursuit was on. 

This drama of cat and mouse would play out for the remainder of the race, with an update every 35 minutes.  Sometimes I’d be a few more seconds up, sometimes I’d have bled some time.  The taste of last years Scott24 and Highland Fling was palpable.  In the Scott I got to within about 30 minutes of him before he took another 30 off me in the last 4 hours.  In the Fling I actually passed him at the 20 km mark, only to have him revive his fortunes and catch me at the 70 km mark, before putting another 13 minutes into me in the last 2 hours.  At SoloNats a month earlier I got overhauled on my last lap and missed the podium.  History suggests I’m a poor finisher.

Compounding my fear of deja vu was the fact that I was starting to experience the familiar twinges of cramp under the surface.  I had to be very careful.  But the recent SoloNats ago gave me heart.  I knew that when we were both rooted, Welch and I tended to lap at similar speeds.  So I needed to focus on the immediate trail and not panic. 

I knew there was no way I could out-muscle him.  My only course of survival was to possibly out-smooth him.  For those unfamiliar with this whole single-track caper, more skilled riders seem to scythe by without expending any energy simply on the wave of better technique.  Sounds odd to a roadie, but on the dirt technique can be a massive part of the equation.

I burnt my matches where I had to, but otherwise tried to dive back into that earlier hyper-switched on trance and ooz smoothness.  Somehow it seemed to be working, with the minute buffer holding but I just couldn’t break the elastic, and the cramp was getting closer to breaking out.  A quick calculation late in the piece revealed I would probably only be out there for another 2 laps.  I made the gamble of taking on a bottle of water and some salt sachets for the penultimate circuit, rather than the standard electrolyte mix as I was starting to feel bloated.  Didn’t seem to help, and I even contemplated not pitting at all to save a few precious seconds for my last spin of the track, but cramp would have got me for sure without more fluid, so I took on one last bottle and counted down the kms as I put in my last lap burst to bring it home. 

Amazingly history was denied and I managed to hold my gap, finishing about 1 min 10 sec ahead of Welch, who was very gracious in defeat, acknowledging that he didn’t concede (given my usual trick of blowing big time with cramp), but gave it full gas all the way to the end.  It’s nice to share a rivalry with such a nice bloke.  In his defense, he probably still hadn’t recovered from the 7 hr he did the previous weekend, and the 170 km he clocked on Thursday probably didn’t help either, on top of not drinking enough early in the piece.  He will still be the one to beat at the next one.

For the record I went through 10 bottles of electrolyte and 7 gels; every second one containing caffeine.  I completed 12 laps of the course, all within the 34-37 minute bracket, coming 4th in Masters and 12th outright.  The top three snuck through for an additional lap, with Adams besting McAvoy, also by a single minute.  That’s super tight racing.  The smallest of mechanicals or offs could be the difference.  James had an off day, finishing third.  At the pointiest end English again was at the top of the heap with 14 laps.  All things considered it was one of my best performances, so very happy to (again) miss the podium by a step.  It was also probably my most enjoyable experience endurance-racing wise, where gripping racing collides with simply sublime course.  Next week the smooth flow of Taree is swapped for the brutality of the Convict100.  Hope my hands have recovered by then.

Somehow my rear tire held together....just.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Vale Karel

Unfortunately Karel recently lost his battle.   

E and I first met him bouldering at Lindfield Rocks, of all places.  He had ridden there…from Kogarah.  In fact he traversed most of Sydney via an old steel racer, quite a feat given Sydney's crappy roads and car-centric culture.  Nothing was too hard.  “I am happy for it”, was his way of dealing with the inconvenience, or any hardship come to think of it.  What doesn’t kill you…He was out from the Czech republic on a working holiday for several years.  His passion for climbing, beer and Australia was infectious, and as a result we jumped into many memorable adventures.  In fact it was through Karel that I’ve met some great friends – actually an important part of his memory and legacy for me.  
 At Arapiles.  Karel had a great head for heights and an eye for a good line.  "It looks Fan-tast-ic" he would marvel.  "That's mee" would let you know he was on belay.  "Bloody Hell" would warn of a best avoided route/move/piece of gear, or just alert you to the fact that he was struggling on lead and you needed to pay attention.  The universal expletive was also liberally used if you really needed to pay attentionThe end of a days climbing would typically culminate swinging in his hammock for beer-a-clock and the shelling of peanuts.  The hammock kept him off the ground and away from the snakes, you see, although he did have to fend off possums during the night on occasionA midden of crushed cans would accumulate before we did the right thing at the end of our campsite tenure.  Not entirely setting a good example, but par for the course if you want to be a pig in the pines.

 Chilling out whilst belaying 50 meters above the deck - possibly somewhere on Bard Buttress.  You wouldn't find a cooler head under pressure or during the exposure that climbing inevitably brings.  Karel orchestrated our escape off a few routes that proved a bit more than we could chew.  His confidence and poise were, i'm sure, part of what got us off safely.
 "Chimnee" was another of his favourite climbing terms, and forms of climb.  His long limbs were perfectly designed for this exaggerated form of crack that most of us eschew.  Gotta be together in the head as falling in one of these suckers is not worth contemplating.  I'll never forget the bottomless chimney 2nd pitch of Oceanoid he led at Araps.  Not for the faint of heart.  I remember having a near nervous breakdown trying to follow him on it.

 Also strong on the smaller varieties of crack, such as The Eternity, at Piddo.  Not scared of taping hands and a good dose of jamming if required.
 Classic Karel climbing attire, paraded this time in the blueies.  He used to spend days in those tights!
 In France on one of our cycling trips, and bearing a scab on his knee I think courtesy of an adventure race - the type held over three days involving multiple disciplines.  They build them tough in the Czech Republic.
 Outside the hospital in Annecy, waiting for BT to get bandaged up.  From memory, whilst riding back to Albertville, Karel ended up also towing Nigel for some distance with a bungee chord after his rear derailleur ate itself.  The rig was specially engineered for the above mentioned adventure races, where the stronger riders would end up towing the weaker with a bungee threaded out the end of the rear pannier cage.  Of course we initially laughed before its utility was demonstrated for real.  Again, he was happy for it!
 Much to the consternation of the others, refreshment at a cafe at the bottom of the Val Thorens is best quenched with something the Czech's know something about.  Gambrinus was his local staple (along with the Boskov), although i think he settled for 1664 on this occasion.
 On the Grossglockner, and at the Summit.  I really don't have the requisite nerve for mountains, but Karel did a good job of keeping an eye on me and getting me up and down safely.  It was one of those experiences i'll never forget.

 A man of simple pleasures; sausages, smashed potatoes, and beer.  No airs or graces required.
 A poxy summit by Karel standards (Mt Townsend), but a summit none the less.  This was half way through a tramp that took us from Thredbo Village, up Crackenback, then basically around the lakes walk via Kosi and Townsend, back to Charlottes Pass, before going cross country to Crackenback and back down the mountain.  One of the hardest days i've ever encountered which left my body aching but Cody and Karel seemed to cope just fine.  To get to Thredbo in the first place they planned to ride all the way from Sydney - up the Blueies, down to Jenolan Caves, up the other side to the Kanangra wilderness, then dirt roads to Goulburn.  You must be joking!  They got as far as Cooma before a rim failure punctured the mission, and we picked them up with cars on our way through.
 Atop a wafer-thin pinnacle on the Czech-German border.  One of the scariest places to climb in the world due to reliance on traditional knot protection.  And a little further south climbing the fractured plug of an extinct volcano (below). The evening culminated in more beer and the raucous singing of Russian folk songs, courtesy of the former overlords before the velvet revolution.  Only the bohemians could have pulled that one off.  Karel - bohemian  through and through.

 Vale Karel!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Groundhog Hour - 24solo Nationals

Over recent years i’ve considered entering the nationals, run by CORC at easter, but haven’t quite conjured the balls.   I entered on the back of good kms in the tank and, if for no other reason, it would serve as a warm-up for worlds scheduled for the same venue in October.  Talk is cheap though, as i was to discover...again.
There was less stress involved than with past solos.  Maybe this comes with experience.  For one, packing the car was a cinch.  Junk from the previous weekends Mont24 only required a subtle re-tweak/wash, before being bunged back in the car.  Add a few more bottles and all set.  Additionally, the forecast was looking favourable – no snow or heavy rain this time.  
The mudge and i packed and left Sydney at approx midday on Friday gleefully unaware that heavy easter traffic awaited on the Hume.   We eventually got to Stromlo and managed to ride about half the course before darkness conspired.  It was good to sample some of the sectors that i hadn’t previously ridden.   The “Bluetongue” climb was part rutted gully, part awkward rock garden.  The “Little Seymour” descent was accurately described in the race briefing as “sketchy”.    I also got to inspect the A-line on the downhill course sector which found me wanting at the Scott24 in October.  The unseen climb up the back of Stromlo would have to wait till race day.
Dinner at Edgars.  Hotel at Ainsley.  Breakfast of Dobinsons.  11 am arrived in no time with the pit area largely sorted and bike prepped as the rest of my pit crew arrived;  Anita the foodmeister was joined by Sally the unflappable and Ben – wielder of the noodle.  Anita and Sally had both pitted for me before and knew the deal, but it was comforting also having Ben and his mechanical nous in the corner, having actually ridden one of these things before.  I should add that it was Ben’s encouragement, backed by his generous offer to handle me that kindled the idea of seriously entering Nats in the first place.   
The field totalled 75, with only 14 in the male 40-44 category.  Whilst a podium was possible a brief analysis of the form indicated that getting on one of those steps was going to be no mean feat.  According to google there were 5 main threats.
Mr Bellchambers (aka Jeebus).  The man-mountain with the beard and a dislike for derailleurs was the standout favourite and, unfortunately for us, had recently accumulated sufficient years to be corralled into the 40-44 category.  Clearly one of the top 10 solo riders on the planet, a position he maintains albeit using the one cog.  Additionally, Stromlo is his backyard.
Mr Handley.  Eighth outright at the Scott24 last October  (with 26 laps to my 24), although he DNF’d at Solo Nats in 2012, so perhaps with a glass jaw if the course finds it.  No idea what he looks like.
Mr Welch.  Category runner up at Nat’s last year, followed by category runner up at worlds in Italy, followed by category winner at the Scott with 25 laps.  Huge year.  I had the wood on him at Worlds in 2010 (and every year at the Convict, strangely enough) but he has been my nemesis in everything else.
Mr Chamberlain.  Perhaps a dark horse but bested Mr Welch in the recent Capital Punishment enduro a month ago.  Obviously has the engine, but how long can he keep it running.
Mr Gillard.  Accumulated the same number of laps as me at 2010 worlds.  Otherwise quiet on the solo front , but probably using this as a tilt towards worlds in October.  Likely takes these things seriously.  You’re a mug if you don’t.
With the race under way i watched as Jeebus and Welch, the only two in my category I recognised, slowly disappeared in a swirl of dust up the opening fire trail.  My race plan for the early part was to adhere to Ben’s mantra of going as slow as i could bear for as long as i could bear.  
The course.  12 km loop.  Sounds easy, except with 400 m altitude a lap.  Significantly more gain per spin than for any other solo i’ve done.  Best sectors; Willo Link, Partyline, Skyline and arriving at transition.  Worst sectors;  leaving transition, the before- mentioned rock gardens of Bluetongue and Little Seymour, Blackberry climb, the intensely shuddering corrugations at the bottom section of the Downhill run, and the vicious climb up the back of the mountain – borrowing from what one of my climbing guides might quip, “the mtb equivalent of the shower-scene from psycho”.  Probably only 400 m long at  15 % but loose and rubbly so optimal line and staying in the saddle for most of it was imperative.  Needless to say the single-speeders weren’t impressed.  
The day laps were pretty cruisy although as the sun tiptoed behind the mountain the accumulated fatigue in my legs and hands (in particular – i still have tingling fingers and toes two days post) was starting to make itself known.  Coming through the pits i’d ditch a bottle and pinch another on the fly, and on one flyby confusion had me simultaneously grasping a different food item in each hand as i rolled past Anita. The neighbouring crew was impressed that it didn’t end in disaster.  The perfect place to do a collarbone really and would have saved me from what was to come.   With laps building a more sensible pause of 5-15 sec a stop allowed for the bottle swap and a paper cup of crumbs to be removed from my rear pocket and be exchanged with one containing any manner of treats to be explored back on course.  Cocktail-sized sandwiches (vegemite, jam, or hommos), slices of fruit (apple, mandarin, grapefruit), hot chips, a slice of pizza, even noodles drained of liquid, which i’d get on another lap in an insulated bottle.  I’ve learnt that variety is key.  Chain and nether regions would be lubed every 5-6 laps.  With lights on batteries were changed every 3 hours – to be on the safe side.  Fears of my left crank arm detaching, as had occurred the week before, had us re-tighten the thing twice, but i carried the big #8 in my jersey pocket as insurance.
Under lights the course tends to ride differently.  Your perspective changes – the powerful beams flatten features and wash out detail, which in some cases actually has you picking better lines – but also trips you up in the often super-loose over hard surface.  Loads of kangaroos and three foxes spotted.  Best entertainment on course was reeling in a rider and trying to figure out who it was going to be.  Most humbling parts were being passed by the Ferraris of the mtb world – English and McDonald, going blow for blow at 1 am, or even big Jeebus motoring by, and always with a kind word or a “how’re you doing” before performing their vanishing acts.
With the approach of evening  i learnt i was running 4th, with 5th breathing down my neck, although at this stage i had no idea who the riders were, except that The Beard had already lapped me and i had yet to see Welch and his distinctive Jersey.  Come midnight, same deal; third some way ahead and 5th just behind.  Stalemate.  The allure of a mattress, or simply some hard dusty surface beside the track becomes almost irresistible.  Why was i doing this patently stupid thing?  How much did i really want it?  What were other riders thinking?  Who would come to their senses first? Who would crack? Would it be me? Hard to justify given that Anita and two friends had donated their weekends to help me out.  With that possibility impossible, nothing doing except to keep plodding and stay upright.  The Little Seymour sector had already tripped me up once during the day and again at night.  Main focus was not to do it on part of the course (Skyline and Downhill track) where an ambulance would be required.
Suddenly, about 3 am, after hearing nothing for ages about position Ben lets me know that 3rd is just three minutes up the road.  Finally, tectonically, the dynamics are changing.  At last some motivation to get me out of my funk and hour-plus splits.  I scull coffee’d milk then do my snail-pace version of putting the hammer down and catch a rare glimpse of the #46 numberplate on a returning switchback halfway through the next lap.  Mr Gillard was too easily caught and is not travelling well.  My mood lifts again.  Due to advances in course design and technology Ben is able to see me in the pit then catch me later on the outgoing trail to relay the split difference that comes up on the web link in his hand.  Over the course of what seems an eternity and no-time-at-all i’ve gone from a 20 minute deficit, to holding 3rd by 6, then 11, then 25 min, as the laps ensued.  I needed to capitalise on whatever implosion my competitor was experiencing to protect against a resurgence or mechanical mishap.  Suddenly, after hours of delirium, the thrill of racing had returned.  Every line nailed was art and a victory of sorts.  
No more monkeying around and into the Red Bull i dove as the sun struggled to break through.  My lap splits dropped 7 min immediately, back to low 50s.  The problem, however, is that despite having a pair of shockers, Gillard had somehow also rekindled his mojo, and whatever elixir he was guzzling proved more effective than mine.  Unbelievably, like a see-saw allowed to return to rest, that comfortable lead i once held bled inexorably back to 11 min, to 7 min, then to about a 1 minute, in spite of my well-improved splits.  My splits were good, but Gillard was putting down his quickest laps of the entire race.  It was slipping though my fingers but there was nothing i could do to prevent it.  With the increased intensity cramp was finally biting and i had to walk sections on the back climb for the first time in the entire race.  My goose was cooked.  I congratulated Gillard as he passed me early on my last lap – his poker face offered no reply as he put on a surge – then I stopped to empty my bladder which was bursting courtesy of whatever a pair of Red Bulls is made of.  Ben was kind enough to keep me company for the rest of the lap as i fare-welled all those ob-stackles that I never thought i’d see the end of. 
Due to the increased pace I actually had a few minutes in which to start a 27th lap of the course but by this stage was well happy to call it a day, although i had effectively forced Gillard into another one to protect his position – he put in another blinder!   I had a lap buffer to 5th, so could afford the luxury of the pre-finish bludge.  A bunch of riders assembled a few 100 meters before the finish line, where i exchanged hugs with my smiling pit crew.  I think we were all happy it was over.  We waited for the clock to reach noon before officially crossing the line.   

Hence, I finished 4th in Masters on 26 laps (310 km and approx 10000m, and 13th outright), to Gillard and Welch on 27, and The Bearded One on 28 (who finished 5th outright and could have rolled a 29th if required).   Welch showed his class and consistency again, with an only-just comfortable second to a rampaging Gillard, who was too good for me and deserved his podium step.  Chamberlain turned out not to be a factor, whilst my other pre-race favourite, Handley, rode a very strong first half, before bailing inexplicably at the ½ way point; a victim of implosion, glass jaw, mechanical, pilot error, or simply pilot sensibility in the form of having a shower and a snooze to escape the undeniable silliness.
At the even pointier end Ed McDonald (the heir apparent) really gave English a ding-dong battle all through the night, being only minutes apart with laps remaining, before one final surge gave English the win, both notching an amazing 33 laps.  Seeing snapshots of the blitzkrieg unfold on different parts of the course was almost embarrassing.  These guys are that fast and in a league of their own.
In summary, i can’t shy away from the fact that the last half was interminably painful, torturous, tedious, sprinkled with large chunks of purgatory.  More mentally than physically.  It’s been horrible before but there was always a disbelieving fascination, which somehow had to be satiated.  Funnily enough physically i have emerged from this, my 4th outing, in best condition yet.  Apart from soreness in every part of my being, the usual blistered pads on my palms and a bit of skin off the knee are all i’ve got to show for it.  It is without doubt the most “complete” 24 i’ve completed.  Consistent splits. Probably only 20 min in the pits.  No melt downs or blow ups.  Never-before experienced return of pace in the morning.  No serious neck, knee or back issues, no weather-induced “one-bike” handicap.  No mechanicals and only two crashes.  I can only be satisfied.  
The physical side of these things no longer scares me, but the question will be whether the mind is willing to not only drive the extensive preparation required to participate, but still be capable of dealing with the guaranteed mental torment that surfaces as the body protests and tries to shut everything down.  I think that’s what caught me out this time. You’ve got to expect that a good dose of hell is what you’ve signed up for...stupid.  Somehow this took me by surprise.
It is a cliché of race reports to say it, but take a bow Anita, Sally and Ben.  Knowing I could rely on you was a major factor in having me contemplate running in the first place, then actually being capable of finishing, and in doing so providing the platform from which i had no excuse but to squeeze the best out of myself.  It’s hard to express what that means to me, but thank you.  You might all just put on a good facade but you gave me the impression that you gained some satisfaction from the experience as well. You’ve again inspired me to want to have a dig at one day passing the bottles, calling the splits, wrenching the steed, fetching pizza, eyeing the field, and wielding the noodle if required, should anyone one else out there want to experience the full mtb-catastrophe that is 24solo racing.  

Gillard finally prevails

Jeebus with the #4 plate at the start

My neighbours on pit row; Welch, Selkrig and Nguyen
All hail Jeebus

Gillard (R) gets his mug in the local rag