Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Plain Wandering – Twitchathon 2013

The Plain Wanderers (which over the years have comprised combinations of Hynson, Langley, Holmes, Williams, Stewart, and Mudge) have pretty much stuck to a route kicking off at Lake Goran before tending eastwards and dusking at the Quipolly Dams near Quirindi.  This year we opted for something a bit different, in large part courtesy of the generosity of the Hunter Brewers who divulged their standard route and associated beta.  Following a new route would carry disadvantages – unfamiliarity with the nuances of new areas and general issues of navigation and timing, and dusking at least an hour further inland – but advantages in the form of a route honed by a very experienced team (consistently one of the top 2 in the state) and hence the possibility of a big score IF we had the combined talent to tick it.

The other big change was that we were only a party of three (Rob, Andy and moi).  Disadvantage; one less set of eyes and ears.  Advantages were several.  Firstly, the “majority” required to formalize a tick was simply two, rather than three in the case of a team of four.  As a quartet, getting three sets of eyes on the same target, or even simply having the discipline to constrain three birders to the same spot to facilitate such a possibility can be like herding cats.  Secondly, this meant a less cramped car.  Car space might seem trivial but by about 10 am on the Saturday morning the car will be brimming with nearly all the food and water supplies required to sustain occupants through to 4 pm on the Sunday – on top of changes of clothes, tents, sleeping gear and a couple of spotting scopes.  What starts as a myriad of ordered bags and bottles progressively transforms to a car-load of crumbs and trash come the end.

On Saturday morning we awoke from digs at the Golden Fleece Hotel in Scone and rolled out at 7 am, enjoying the cool morning as we headed north-west across the Liverpool Plains to check out Gunnedah and new spots further to the north.  In many ways the pre-twitch is the most enjoyable part of the trip and feels like being on holiday.  However as the day progresses the tension incrementally ratchets up as the last few spots are checked and driving times are estimated before arriving at the starting spot, where the expected targets still have to be found.

Our start location was absolute gold with an abundance of Painted and Singing Honeyeaters flitting overhead (a rarity this far east), and some other dry country specialists in our sights.  In the last few minutes we tracked a troupe of Speckled Warblers whilst simultaneously keeping a bead on a nearby Little Friarbird.  Eventually 4 pm arrived and with a handful of choice ticks in the bag we trundled back to the car and headed to Kelvin State Forest, then onto Keepit dam, where a bunch of stuff we were hoping to get had regrettably moved on.  As dusk fell we hit the Gunnedah pooh ponds where a bevy of top-notch ducks were scoped, including Bluebill and my first proper look at Freckled Duck. 

A pub meal allowed the count to be estimated at 92 before we hit the highway for the long trek south-east to Singleton where a LHT would be made onto the winding dirt to the standard Allyn River rainforest night spot deep in Barrington Tops.  We spotlighted the entirety of this last sector hoping, like last year, to bag a swag of owls and frogmouths, however came up blank.  We bedded down in a tarp sandwich and as we drifted off finally heard a Boobook chime in, as well as a Channel-Billed Cuckoo and Noisy Pita, of all things – not bad for 1:45 am!

Five am came round real fast.  We walked the gully road; getting about 20 rainforest species on call, and were heading south again by 7 am.  Next stop Green Wattle Road for the eastern dry woodland specialists such as Fuscous and White-Naped HE, then the “Maitland Economic Zone”, where a few more honeyeaters (Yellow Tufted and White Cheeked) were added before heading to the Newcastle baths for the seawatch.  At this stage a tally of 200 was definitely on the cards, however the seawatch struggled to deliver, and although we did well at Stockton, we struggled to get much more over the last few hours at Ash Isl, Hexam Swamp, or even at the Wetlands Center itself (the finish location), which was on the verge of being totally dry. 

In the end we only managed 191, with too many “biggest dips” to mention.  OK; Musk Lorikeet, New Holland HE, Little Wattlebird, and Darter, to name a few. This turned out to be the 6th best score, one bird ahead of a few teams on 190 and another on 189.  Best team, incidentally was the Brewers who started at Lake Cargelligo this year, and who, after three successive seconds, finally bested the Monarchs with a whopping 252 birds, a new record by 2 birds! 

Even though we tanked at the death it was still on the whole a great weekend away, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event, and the prospect of maybe another new route to explore.

 We spotted this guy on the pre-twitch at Breeza Dam; Double Banded Plover, and a new one for me.  These guys breed in NZ, and winter in Oz.  This one is in breeding plumage but seems to have missed the boat home.  Typically, when we came back to try and spot-light him during the race he was no longer present
 Red kneed dotterel fly-by.
 A mix of White Browed and Masked Woodswallows take flight.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

A very forgettable 24

Somehow, though, I think this one will stay with me for a while, but for all the other reasons.  Despite last week's hiccup, being a somewhat seasoned 24 rider (4 under the belt and no DNFs), i thought I'd be able to bluff my way through.  I'd largely regained a full range of movement in my right leg, coincident with colourful hues of yellow replacing the deep purple that was draining south.  The impact point remained an egg-shaped protrusion, but wasn't painful.  The back was starting to come good, enabling even vaguely normal bending and getting in/out of the car.  Riding to work had proved easier day by day.  With Friday off everything was going to be apples come race day.

It didn't take long to realise how delusional I'd been.  I guess I really wanted to do this bloody race after all.  Early in the first lap I started getting twinges of acute back pain accompanying the odd pedal stroke.  By the top of the mountain it was every stroke.  I rolled into the pits and requested a double-does of painkillers for the next stop.  Hopefully things would settle and I'd find my workman's groove.  The second lap was worse.  Half way up the climb on my 3rd lap, the motion of picking the front wheel over the entrance to a little rock step was enough to re-tear whatever ribbons of erector spinae had been giving me grief and I knew instantly that my race over.  At this point just finishing the lap proved an extremely painful affair.  I never thought I'd be so grateful for the downhill components simply due to not having to pedal, even if shifting weight was now an issue.  The mental anguish of having to stop didn't hit until I rolled into pits after only 3 hrs and announced I was done, although I think my crew had figured this out after my less than glowing demeanour and request for drugs on the first stop.

It is a team effort despite the "solo" moniker, and it felt terrible not to fulfill my side of the bargain and put on a good show.  In every other respect we really were the best prepared we'd ever been for such a campaign.  Part of the shame was dragging Anita, Ben and Sara all the way to Canberra for the fiasco.  At least the outcome was definitive early on so that Sara and Ben could make the return trip to Sydney in good time, but not before sharing some gourmet nibbles and beer for a few hours as we talked life matters as riders filed by; a chilled out state those on track are not normally privy to.  I should say their bedside manner was also pretty A grade in consoling the obvious disappointment.  Thanks guys.

Anita and I weren't going to attempt leaving just yet, given my state and that the pit area wouldn't be open to 4-wheeled traffic till the following afternoon.  But we enjoyed going for a bit of a bird on the adjacent runners track (excellent white-fronted chats and goldfinches) before settling into more spectating as shadows lengthened.  Riders faces were now writ with creases indicating that the novelty of fast early laps had long worn off and the enormity of a long night was looming.  We opted for a comfy hotel bed away from the buzz of the race, but kept an eye on proceedings online.

The race itself was fantastic to follow on numerous levels - the result of 270 odd starters from 16 countries, the second biggest 24solo in history.  For a change the course itself was the kindest singletrack offering that Stromlo could offer.  This was a prescription for speed, but as a result many riders simply blew themselves to smithereens.  In the elite men the first 8 hrs were dominated by Ed McDonald, who after weeks in the sick bed got back to racing the only way he knows how, building a lead of some 8 minutes at one point before this gradually faded to an ever diminishing chasing pack of elite riders.  Shortly after being caught he pulled up stumps knowing that despite pushing English so close at Nationals this just wasn't going to be his day.

The chasing pack contained most of the other favourites; English, Wallace (Canada, and again my pick for the upset), Page (UK), Hall, Lloyd , Chancellor, Herfoss and Poidevin (Canada).  Although this group was gradually splintering, the gaps were still small.  Come midnight, though, things had changed considerably.  English was comfortably holding a 20 minute margin, with Wallace starting to firm as the main challenger, although Lloyd and Hall were in hot pursuit and Chancellor was still looking good in fifth.  Page and Herfoss, however, had joined McDonald in their respective pits of despair and were no longer circulating.  Come the morning, Chancellor had also hit the showers and Wallace had slipped to 4th, derailed by an off which dislocated his shoulder.  Popping it back in took a bit a doing.  With survival now the primary focus he couldn't prevent Lloyd and Hall blasting by and mopping up the minor placings.  In the women's race, at one point the 5 top contenders were all rolling around within a few minutes of each other, but it was Jess Douglas who ultimately prevailed to defend her title with early leader Kwan fading to third and Hurst (NZ) securing second.

In male masters , the 40-45 category (the midlife crisis category) was again boasting the largest field in the race, with 40 starters.  Morris and McAvoy were the top billings and didn't disappoint, only minutes apart for the first half.  My main sparring partner Phil Welch did a great job of holding them at 10 minutes for the first third of the race, and looked to have 3rd in the bag at half way.  Hence I was shocked to wake on Sunday morning and see that Phil was no longer circulating, and hoped that he was OK.  Chatting with him later he said he was another guilty of roasting himself.  Once he lost his 3rd spot he crumbled mentally as much as physically.  He figured it was better to stop and start recovering for the Croc Trophy (starting the following weekend), than to coffin himself unnecessarily.

To give an indication of the quality of the 40-44 field, McAvoy, who hung on for the win despite relentless pressure from Morris, finished 5th outright on 24 laps.  Such a mindblowingly good result must have surpassed even his wildest expectations.  Morris came home in 8th outright (also on 24 laps), with Archer filling the last podium step on 23 laps and 12th outright.  Vogele and Gillard rounded out the top 5 with 22 laps, and places 18 and 22 respectively.  So, the overall top 10; English (27 laps), Lloyd then Hall (26 laps), Wallace, McAvoy, Bellchambers (single-speed!), Rae and Morris all on 24 laps, then Poidevin and Pattie on 23 laps.  English, btw was clearly once again on another level, cool as ever picking up his 4th consecutive world title in his 25th 24solo outing.  

Whilst I was somewhat relieved not to be putting myself through daggers on the Saturday afternoon, and enjoyed the spectacle with beer in hand, watching the battle-weary riders ticking off their final laps on the Sunday morning was an entirely different affair.  I realised I wanted to share in their triumph, camaraderie, relief and satisfaction.  I watched with considerable regret, knowing that with 17000 km for the calendar year i was in some of the best form of my life but unable to wield it, especially on a course that suited my capabilities so well -big tempo climb, no super fast descents, and few bits of thuggery, not to mention divine conditions.  And it was the Worlds!  The stars had aligned but somehow I'd slept through the alarm.  It was a bit crushing.

I was not the only one to suffer disappointment.  Ben, for instance, found himself in an even leakier boat yet still kindly offered to handle me.  Moore, another 7 hr combatant also succumbed early to mutinous back issues.  Phil, along with many of the elite guns, some who'd travelled round the world to be there, had to hoist a flag at some point.  24hr racing is like that.  If you have a weakness or miscalculation it will inevitably become exposed.  Most sobering of all, and putting things in perspective, a rider participating in a competition between the armed forces died on the mountain on the Friday we arrived, giving us all pause to consider that there are more important a things to life than bicycles.

Although I obviously wanted to finish this race on a high, I'm reasonably certain that the romance of the 24solo is now too thin for me to want to attempt another.  As Mr Fellows (third in 2010 worlds behind English and Wallace and since 'retired') mentioned to me last week at the Scott, "those things just hurt too much".  That said, I haven't regretted the journey just getting to the startline.  In particular, the 7 hr format is one I've really enjoyed, and I should thank Phil for encouraging me to give them a crack in the first place.  Once I get my ailments sorted I'll hopefully find myself doing a few more of these yet.

Andrew sent this to me - something he spotted in a recent edition of the the New Yorker.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Best laid plans of mice and men...

.....and Salmon and brown wombats,

Well,the Scott24 has been run, and barely survived by the Soggies, in what was a bit of a weekendus horribilus.  Actually that's a bit harsh, although it's fair to say things didn't go exactly to plan.  “The Plan”, being, a nice social outing with the lure of beer taking hold somewhere in the eve such that running all the way through was only optional.

It all started off well enough.  Excellent camp right near transition with Ben's camper forming the hub of sogginess.  The course, the standard Red lap Blue lap combination, also looked to be a step kinder this year, with the usual brutality of the blue lap toned down a few notches.  The beer was chilled and we would just see how far we got.  With early laps accruing word from both Salmons was that the course was sketchy courtesy of its dryness.  This was indeed to the case, with Mikey having a minor off with a front wheel washout on the Luge.

On our second rotation Ben and Mikey swapped order so that each could run the alternate loop.  Ben almost got home to transition when a couple of hundred meters from the end of the red lap a gravelly step down at speed saw his front wheel wash, resulting in him hitting the deck hard and sliding s few meters before he became tangled in some partition fencing and dragging that a few meters as well.  

It was clear when he appeared at transition nursing his arm and shoulder that the medics tent would be the next port of call.  Unfortunately he'd gouged quite a hole in his left elbow, and it was quickly confirmed that Woden hospital, X-rays and some stitches was the best option.  Ham acted as ambo whilst Mikey was by this stage dodging black snakes half way round the blue lap.  So Ben had to wait out the usual emergency queue whilst Ham returned to head out on course once I'd returned from running a double.

Remarkably, at this stage we hadn't actually missed any transitions but were missing our friend – a far more depressing scenario.  Somber talk back at camp revolved around hoping that Ben hadn't done his collarbone, and would perhaps be back at camp soon to at least partake in a quiet ale. "Soon" turned out to be quite a while, and it wasn't until about 8 pm that Ben finally hobbled back to camp, complete with three stitches and a patch quilt of bandaging, but most importantly no broken bones.

Although he didn’t let it show, for Ben this must have been a bit crushing as he’d been training hard to run solo at WEMBO the following weekend (world solo 24 champs), as had I, but this now seemed unlikely.  Incidentally he wasn't the only one to be undone by this terminal section of the Red loop track.  Consequently the barrier positions were shifted to prevent further repeats.

By this stage, and given the circumstances, I'd decided to call it quits for the day, especially as I already had 50 km under the belt and the race was meant to cap a week of tapering.  Night laps, well I'd get a bunch of them next week anyway, and the temperature was now pretty chilly.  Ham and Mikey still partook, but eventually we settled round the glow of the camper to discuss life matters whilst consuming pizza, chips, and a little beer.  Then it was off to bed.

It was a cold one, and I drifted off to sleep to the intermittent hum of knobby tires on Tarmac, as riders either returned from the blue lap, or headed out on the red lap, just meters from where my tent was pitched.  Having had a shower I slept pretty well, got up and headed out for an early morning double.  The track still retained some tackiness from the evening due, and I rumbled into transition to record my longest ever Red lap of some 9 hrs!  After completing a blue lap I hit the transition area for the morning staples of coffee and bacon and egg rolls.  

My next lap was a Blue and this is where I joined Ben in the damaged goods department, although my pilot error happened way out the back of the course where I was enjoying the thrill of clearing some doubles on the Double Dissolution sector.  I' m still not sure exactly what happened but air off one of these was met not with a smooth landing but with but a touchdown which had me lose control, surfing some loose stuff before the finality of going over the bars.

I immediately scrambled to get myself and bike off track as riders started flying past.  Was I OK?, they all wanted to know.  Pretty much doing anything elicited jolts of pain due to a bump on the left knee, a corked groin, and an extremely sore lower left back.  Terrific! There was nothing required in the stitch department, but to some extent there might as well have been as I could barely move.

The hard tail couldn't move either, having performed a magic trick of its own.  The handlebars had flipped round past the point of rotation such that the RH shifter/break mechanism (and bars) was now on the wrong side of the top tube.  Steric hindrance, as we say in macro-molecular parlance, should clearly have prevented such rotation.  I had to loosen the shifters and rotate them round the bars to swing the front end back to its normal orientation.  To top it off the rear wheel was now well out of true, but not so much that I couldn't get home.  After collecting myself for another 5 min or so I started the awkward process of limping home.

Well, that was my race over and I joined Ben under the shade of the tarp to compare war stories.  It was over to Ham and Mikey to swing laps for the remainder, but they were up for it.  Ham was riding well, lapping consistently, as was Mikey who was discovering the joys of lower tyre pressures. Meanwhile I was licking my wounds, figuratively, and marvelling at the bar-end shaped punch mark in my groin, which explained the magic trick performed by the handlebars.  On flipping round the bar-end collected my groin with force enough to flex the bars the 1 cm required to hurdle the steric impediment represented by the top tube.  This tube itself now sported a minor scrape and fracture as evidence, although the integrity of the tube itself looks to be OK (touch carbon).  More sound, at least than I am feeling today (The Monday after), which was meant of be a day of a light spin and packing, but which now looks like it will be largely spent prostrate, although a trip to Concord Hospital beckons to make sure there is nothing cracked in the vertebrae department.

On reflection, the weekend was a well intentioned plan that just didn't stay on script.  Funnily enough, despite it all it was still an enjoyable adventure with the boys, although obviously we would have preferred to emerge with full ranges of motion and free of cat gut.  I suppose I'll just have to take things one day at a time and decide mid week whether I think I'll be able to run on the weekend.  Obviously a major bummer if I can't, as this has been the overarching goal of the year. But whichever way it pans out, I suppose that's life!

Postscript – Tuesday.  No cracked vertebrae (much relief), and was actually able to ride in (very slowly) today.  Funnily enough doing anything on the bike is easier than trying to do anything off it.  So in all probability I’ll be a starter on the weekend, although I’ll have to temper expectations accordingly.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

AWABA state of mind – Chocky Foot 7hr 2013

Since first riding the track at Awaba a few months back I had this course in mind as one which might suit my capabilities – lots and lots of climbing with few mega technicalities, although it did occur to me that compared to Taree or Nowra it was on the rough side and was certain to dish out a hammering on the hard tail.

I travelled to the event in the early morning with the Salmon collective – Ben would also be running solo and Mikey would be teaming up with a work mate in the pairs category.  Although Ben and Mike are both pretty competent bike handlers I filled them in on what I knew of the course, including the insanely steep descent to the bowels of a gully known as “the chute”.

The form.  The Masters field was, again, going to be a hard one to crack.  Mr Adams (round 1 winner) was signed up, along with Messer’s McAvoy (who I pipped for the first time last week at the Kowalski – although he was treating it as a leisurely training ride), Welch (10 min behind me last week and in a bit of a fatigue slump), Israel (3 min ahead of me last week) and James (6 min ahead of me last week).  Fortunately for all of us Adams was a DNS.

My self-seeding nightmare continued although I managed to slot into the first single track sector with a lungful of dust maybe 20 spots behind Welch, but by the half way point of what is a longish 12 km loop he was well out of sight.  I ended up riding the first few laps with Mr Clutterham, who used to live in the same townhouse complex I call home.  Matt was riding well after having a bit of a horror show at the Dargle12hr solo a month back.  We swapped lead a few times and chatted intermittently when suddenly Welch appeared on the horizon at about the 2 hour mark.  Slowly but surely we gained contact then sat in a conga line for some time, with Phil at the head of affairs.

Eventually I decided it was time to pass but made a hash of it, almost knocking both myself and Phil off our bikes.  I apologized profusely then got back to the business of holding a rhythm.  Soon after Mr Israel was also gobbled up.  On the main climb of the course a gap seemed to open and on the next lap I got a bit of a shock, sighting glimpses of Mr James up ahead, betrayed by his canary yellow shoes and socks.  Soon enough I was cruising past as he conceding that a lack of taper had left him cooked and it would not be his day.  The only man up the road at this point would have been McAvoy himself.

I eased off a little bit as the pace had been pretty intense and it was reasonably warm with little breeze getting through the trees.  I had abandoned my sweat-flecked glasses after the first lap – a sign I should have taken more notice of.  Now my vision was at times blurry as I struggled to get the contacts pointing in the right direction, perhaps courtesy of the combination of dust and encroaching dehydration.  Feeding was quite tricky, with most of the liquid having to be downed in large gulps on only a few short sections of fire-road connecting the large sectors of singletrack.  But I was enjoying being on my lonesome and swooping through the half-pipes of eucalypt and rainforest sectors.

Adrenaline moment of the day was rounding a corner and startling a huge goanna (as long as I am tall) that had lumbered onto the track.  Fortunately for both of us it bolted as soon as it saw me, but along the very same single track.  Although these things can move I was bearing down on it – a slapstick Jurassic Park moment albeit in a parallel universe with man chasing lizard.  It had sense to finally punch off the track 10 meters later just as the front wheel was close to clipping its thrashing tail.

I couldn’t afford to ease off for long, as occasional glimpses of Phil behind reminded me.  At best I really only had a few minutes up my sleeve.  Occasionally Ben or Mike would make my pits more efficient by passing a bottle and giving a time check.  The most encouraging one I got all race was “3 minutes behind and 3 minutes ahead”.  Welcome news although I think the 3 behind (McAvoy) was a little flattering and the 3 ahead was tempered by knowledge it was a lap old.

In any case I was chuffed to be running so close to McAvoy, and felt confident that I had 2nd in the bag.  I shouldn’t have.  With 5 hours down and 2 hours (or 3 laps) remaining the first very unwelcome twinges of cramp made themselves known.  It’s funny how quickly dynamics can change.  Only the lap prior I felt strong and in control.  Now just cleaning the steeper pinches without inducing lock-up became a battle.  So I nursed myself, guzzling liquid when I could, but caught sight of Welch once again with about a lap and a quarter to go.  Come my last transition and the start of my 11th and final lap I only had 30 seconds, and with about 10 km to go I eased aside to let Phil blast through.  I thought this was a bit of overkill as it should have been obvious my engine was roasted.  I suppose he was just making sure, as I have done to him on previous occasions, but I discovered only minutes later that perhaps fear of a resurgent Israel might have also been motivation. 

I congratulated Mike as he too surged past and let him know that Phil was only a minute up the track if he wanted him.  At least I didn’t have to worry about the podium now.  Turns out Mike did want him, catching Phil at the death and putting a mere 10 sec into him come the line.  What a ding-dong battle!  McAvoy finished on top, 10 minutes clear of the minor placing’s fisticuffs.  I eventually got myself to the end, but not before “Clutters” (5th in open category) also blasted by in the last km to also do me by about 30 seconds.  Well-done Matt!  Despite having a shocker, Mr James was only 5 minutes further adrift in 5th, also on 11 laps.   Only the outright solo winner (Mr Lloyd) managed 12 laps for the day. 

Well, that was an education and a timely reminder that when it’s warm I’ve got to manage my fluid intake and intensity a little better.  Hats of to Jason for being a cut above, and to Mike and Phil (and Matt) for pacing themselves so sensibly and saving enough to run hot at the end when it mattered.  I think all would agree it turned out to be a terrific race.  And to Phil, especially, for breaking the drought that had been messing with his mind.  

Ben and Mikey also seemed to have had a grand day out, with a few minor offs, but nothing involving broken bikes, bodies or bark off.  Thanks guys for the joys of the car trip and for pit-side bottles and beta.  Next week Stromlo should be fun in a less serious and more relaxed kind of way.