If Mogo was the Alpes, Awaba is the Pyrenees. Gentle gradients and swooping non-technical descents are swapped for an assortment of nasty pinches, technical, loose, shuddering plummets, jungle warfare and general rugga-bugga. Whilst both courses are climb-heavy, the buttocks and hands much prefer the former. In last year’s Awaba jaunt I did well until the 5 hr mark when things started to go wrong in the engine room, culminating in slipping from 2nd to off the podium on the last lap.
I was hoping to maintain some good form after the Mogo triumph. This was largely intact despite spending the intermediate Saturday in bed. Thankfully, come race day the coughing had largely abated and I was again ready to roll. Had the phases of the moon been out by a week, I’d likely have been a non-starter in both events. On the radar were a solid Bridgland astride a Specialized dually, and what was sure to be a McAvoy revival, if Strava rumblings were any indication. Like me, Jason gambled on the hardtail option.
It was announced at the briefing that number plates were now colour coded in one of 4 flavours, to help seed the start. However, enjoying chit-chat with Bridgland down the back had me miss this little technicality. By the time I registered my number plate was red (= front runners) it was too late to push my way through. Anyway, I was convinced it wouldn't count for too much over the 7 hours that were to follow. By the time I was into the singletrack both Jason and Ian were well out of sight and there was no doubt I was in for a long chase.
I'd caught glimpses of Jason on the first lap but it wasn't until midway through about the third lap that I finally made contact. Even sitting on, however, proved difficult due to the pace and repeatedly getting gapped by traffic. Burning a match here, a match there, it was status yo-yo before I was able to make my move on what was arguably the pivotal piece of track for the day, the brutal camelback climb up the back of the course. In last year's edition the course sidled through switchbacks to negotiate the climb. This year it was straight up the guts for 200 meters of pinch climb pain.
Tractoring past I had my first twinges of cramp for the day - definitely not a good sign so early. In any case, the effort had been expended, the weakness (hopefully) disguised, and the gap was established. Not even a km later, however, I undid it all by binning it on a tight loose right-hander. Having dusted myself off and re-fitted the dropped chain (the second time for the day), I then had to wait for Jason and a few others to file through before re-mounting and continuing the descent. After all that lead up work I was back where I was a lap prior.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Jason was gone. Even 10 sec on this course can be enough to put one largely out of view. Psychologically, losing your target can be a big factor for the chaser, especially when you are burning as hot as you dare for no apparent gain. Hammer time, and I couldn’t touch this! I lost sight of Jason for maybe two laps, even on the bits where the course opens up. If he could maintain this pace that was it. But every effort has to be paid for and all of a sudden he magically reappeared on the track ahead.
Depending on feeding and hydration one oscillates between just going through the motions and spitting fire when all is in balance. I was enjoying a fast spell when re-gaining contact, and this time made my pass definitive. Jason offered me encouragement and the beta that Bridgland was just 3 min up the track. The way I was travelling I believed that catching Ian was inevitable, probably for both of us.
Like I said, every effort has to be paid for, and my period of invincibility soon spluttered in an almighty battle through cramp to even clean the camelback climb later that lap. Back to chugging, focusing on just keeping the rubber side down through the rough. Ed McDonald caught me at about 4:20 (late for me) so I knew the pace thus far had been quick. I was hoping Bridgland would start to fade, but the gap, kindly provided by Kylie McAvoy in the pit area, was holding firm at 3-4 min.
In the last two hours survival trumped speed, with cramp never far away. The hands were blistered from the corrugations and the lower back and arms were aching. Such a tough track, mentally as well, offering very few places to switch off or feed and drink. Near the end of my penultimate loop I noticed Jason closing again through the switchback trees below, well inside a minute back, coincidentally almost in the identical place as happened with Phil a year ago.
All in then, through gritted teeth for the 11th and last lap. I survived the late scare, finishing just 2 min shy of Ian, who had a terrific outing, and, like me last week, picked up his first 7 hr win. Awesome effort! Credit to Jason for re-discovering some lost form (didn’t take long!) and pushing me so hard throughout. He's been one of the enduro benchmarks for as long as I've been racing fatties, so it's a thrill to be in a similar ring, if only briefly, although I do think he needs to put more effort back into his swimming ;-).
The aftermath. Well, it's Tuesday and I'm still trashed. I've honestly come out of 24 solos in better nick. Mental note that a dually is the more appropriate tool for future dances at Awaba.