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.