So, how did it come to this? Short memory. Unfinished business. Vestiges of youthful enthusiasm. Romantic nostalgia. Pure romance? Probably a mishmash of everything and more. It’s fair to say that without Mikey’s enthusiasm I wouldn't be there, but solely blaming him is dumb logic (much like the concept of racing for 24hrs itself). An ulterior motive, assuming I survive and recover; at least I’d be fit for the last round of the Choc Foot 7hr series two weekends following.
In any case, here Mikey, Anita (doing the 6+6 event) and I were on the start line with a motley crew of other dreamers, accompanied by experienced support in the form of Ben, with Anita to pitch in during the night shift.
Strategy. I’d taken a somewhat different mental approach to this one. The decision to run was made late (2 months out), so that I didn’t have time to sweat on mega training and associated stress. My plan was to keep things light on expectation and actually try to enjoy chunks of it. Having witnessed one from the pits last year, and, more recently, following the Worlds the weekend before on-line, these experiences brought home the realisation that the speed and stress of the first 6 hrs is wasted energy given the duration of the event. Hence, if I could muster the discipline (and that’s a big IF – how can one not be carried away), my plan was to literally chill for the opening daylight stanza, and really only get down to business once the lights go on. This was also important as far as not taking unnecessary risks on descents. Focus on smooth, be kind to the body. I’d be starting on the 29er hardtail, but this time also had the luxury of the 26er dually as an option if the 29er became too much, but I was hoping to run the hardtail all the way through.
The competition. Having turned 45 earlier in the year, this shifted me from the midlife crisis bracket, one of the toughest pools (containing over 20 entrants), to the slightly less tough and populated 45-49 bracket. The only name I recognised in the field of 10 was Ash Turner, defending champion from last year, who won in diabolically oppressive conditions. I was there to witness it. In the 7 hr races we've competed in together i usually have the wood on Ash, but only by a handful of minutes. And 24s are another beast all together. Also on the radar were a couple of single-speeders, one with some solid results against Bellchambers. And this was a perfect course for a single-speeder with ooze. Climb the mountain, bomb the descent, repeat. With the climb being of even tempo and the descents being so flowing, even I'd probably use only 2-3 of my sprockets for much of the race.
The course. Climb the mountain, descend the mountain. Add another 2 ks of undulations, and after a mere 12km you’ll be back through transition. Although described by Jason English at the end as "brutal", it was still on the kinder side of what has been dished up at Stromlo in the past. Whilst the main descent is littered with rough segments, the marquee sectors, Skyline and Luge, are generally well groomed and bring a smile to your face, at least when you're fresh. But get bucked off Skyline, and you're in hospital. Likewise, at Willo Junction the course hits Breakout, another section with lots of fast and rough crammed together, and the only other sector requiring particular attention before heading home.
The race almost started without me. As we assembled on the line I reach back to ratchet up my helmet strap when the whole thing goes limp. The ratchet on my olde faithful catlike had finally had enough. Ben did the sprint back to the pit to grab my night helmet, a far more recent vintage Kask. The gun fired - a rarity these days, and we were off. Ash and I had a bit of a chat on the opening fire road before I slotted just ahead of him for the Bobbypin switchbacks. He took the sneaky A-line switchback on the Echidna Gap climb (which I've never managed to clean), and was back in front of me for the descent, where he gradually pulled away. I passed him in the pits for the next outing, and got to work on the climb.
On my third time down Skyline, a few hundred meters from the tunnel, the track turns hard left then scythes across some short sharp ridges littered with protruding black rocks. I was into my descending groove a little too much (eyes high!) and slammed the rear wheel through one of said projections any smart person would avoid. I immediately knew I'd punctured. As I ripped through the rocky tube of trees that follow I could hear the sealant trying to do its job. Not this time though! I limped to the entrance of the tunnel and went about the challenge of dealing with the first flat I'd had in 5 years since going tubeless. I went through 2 cylinders, one of which I bungled, trying to gas the wheel, hoping that remaining sealant would plug the hole. No luck. I put a tube in and was relieved to see the wheel ripen using my last canister. The wheel was swapped out for the spare at the pit.
A bit of a bummer. Not only did I lose 15 min, but I dealt with the repair in the full sun, which was now pretty high and pretty hot. With no air-flow to cool me I was sweating buckets and my eyes were stinging. Additionally, with contacts in, my close-range vision is a blur, making anything involving hands tricksy. I couldn't properly make out the "open-close" printing on the CO2 regulator, and almost blew my fingers off with the first canister.
The heat was to become the defining factor of the first day. Forecast at only 27, it felt considerably hotter, and although the tree cover improves yearly at Stromlo, it's nothing like riding in a pine forest. At the three hour mark I started cramping in my hands and toes. Way too early! Only 4 hrs in and I was feeling cooked. 6 hours in i was roasted, and Ash, who passed me during my puncture, was nowhere to be seen.
Most worrying, that strain in the chest I sometimes get when suffering in the heat was back. The last time I experienced this was at 3peaks in 2013 when I was so charred I thought a heart attack was on the cards. By the time I got half way up the climb the pain would build so I'd hold back, and it would disappear on the descent. Even though as evening came the heat was replaced by lovely cool air, I still had this issue of not being able to ride the climb hard. I was seriously considering pulling the plug when, at about 8 pm, Ben hands me a vegemite sandwich. I washed it down with mineral water, which I'd been guzzling at each pit. I noticed on the next lap that the chest pain wasn't nearly as bad. Next pit I took a spoonful of vegemite, washed down with more mineral water - the pain was nearly gone. Repeat, gone altogether, and I was now riding the hill at speed. Over the course of about 3 hours I reckon I went through about a dessert spoon of vegemite to supplement the electrolytes my sports drinks were simply unable to replace. I took a teaspoon every pit for the rest of the race.
At approx 10 pm I finally caught Ash, who was likely having issues of his own, par for this type of racing. I was finally feeling normal again and enjoying working the climb at my desired pace. At this stage I knew I had the category lead. The plan then became one of getting a lap on Ash before winding back the throttle and just surviving to the end. Depending on the gap from Ash to third, Ash might even pull up stumps early, in which case I'd be more than willing to do the same. Sounds simple.
I almost undid the plan immediately whilst swooping down the top of the Skyline descent, wiping out against an embankment on the left hand side, just shy of where consequences would have been really ugly. A fraction of inattention was all it took. Gave myself a nasty contusion on my left leg, but the bike was OK, and I was fantastically lucky to have gotten off so lightly. Back to business.
And so the night progressed. The colder it got, the happier I was. After the stress of the heat I was actually enjoying the discipline of navigating good lines under a beautiful star filled night over the glittering city lights. The late afternoon storms we could see building over the Brindabella Ranges somehow missed us. No need for addition of an undershirt or warmers or gillet.
Nutrition. Having consumed just the one vile gel during the race thus far, I aimed to consume no more but carried one as emergency, sticking with handfuls of oversized grapes, wedges of juicy grapefruit, and the odd mouthful of pizza, mostly consumed on the asphalt before getting back on the singletrack. All caffeine was taken in the form of coffee milk, and salt in the form of staminade/endura and gobs of vegemite. Fizzy mineral water was guzzled in the pits, with the added satisfaction of some pleasant burping (settling the stomach) to kick off each lap. Two packets of figs, which I planned on demolishing, barely got a look in (the others were predicting a doomsday outcome), and my one attempt at salt in the form of popcorn resulted in me vomiting it all up minutes later. The vagaries of diet under stress.
Distractions. Out back at Willo Junction the organisers had rigged a pretty amazing sound system, samples of which could be picked up even before gaining the top of the mountain. Tunes and commentary from the event radio blared out all through the night, decorated by strobes, mirror balls, and corridors of flashing string lighting. Coming through this sector never failed to lift me, not to mention breaking the lap up a little. No chance of getting lonesome out on track.
Progress. Despite the wee hours going well the process of gaining a lap on Ash proved to be a lot harder than I expected. According to my pit I'd gain a few minutes here, and then bleed some time there, but consistent splits and a solid 6 hour chase eventually allowed me to catch him at about 4 in the morning. I caught him coming out of the pits and we a bit of a chat before the trail kicked up. He too had suffered a puncture and been knocked about by the heat of the previous day. I picked it up a bit to gain a bit more breathing space.
Dawn. Traumatized wrens started chirping, the sky lightened, and the sun eventually winked over the horizon. Bloody brilliant sunrise! This lift was fleeting. The good news; hard evidence that there was only 6 hours to go. The harsh reality; still 6 hrs to endure.
Damage. By this stage I was physically and emotionally struggling to hold it together. I'd lost feeling in my toes most of the night, and my hands were now extremely blistered and sore, making descending or anything involving corrugations painful. This forces one to ride seated more than usual, which means that the posterior and lower back takes additional hammering. I had no appetite for food or drink and I just wanted the whole bloody thing to be over.
According to Bellchambers, who’s ridden over 20 of these things, if you want to have a cry, do it out the back of the course so as not to freak out your pit crew. Sound advice, but I couldn't help but have a bit of a whimper about 5 pits running. In stark contrast to having to maintain focus, just to get down the mountain, lap after lap after lap, having a bit of a blubber in the pits was such an emotional release. Ben displayed great bedside manner, and just put an arm round my shoulders, indicating it was fine to pause, but I should really get rolling again. I must say I felt I also had collective arms around my shoulders from everyone who communicated well wishes during the event, or whom I knew were watching on-line, in no particular order; Ham, BT, GK, Sally, Andy, Ansha, Sara, Giles, and Kev, not to mention encouragement out on course from riders, solo and team alike. Thanks all! To the Asian lady I lapped countless times doing it with one leg and unbridled good spirit, you were inspirational!
Endgame. I'd been crunching the math and after my 26th lap decided I was getting off the bike and collapsing into the camp chair for 10 min. Bliss! Ben and I discussed options. I headed out for what I hoped would be my last lap, rolling back to the pit at approx 10:30 am. I had sufficient time to tap out another 2 if required, but this all depended on what Ash had in mind. I sat in the chair and kept eating on the chance I'd have to roll again as we counted down both the clock and Ash's arrival. Just after 11 Ash rolled past and crossed the line to register his 26th lap. Ben raced to the other side of pit lane to see what he was going to do. Mathematically, with a Red Bull boost he could still roll another two and force my hand. Fortunately for both of us, he pulled up stumps. I wandered over to his pit and we had a hug and a good chat for 10 min. Such a nice guy, as seem to be all the people who indulge in this sort of silliness. I returned to the pit, gingerly mounted my bike and crossed the line to belatedly register my 27th. It was over.
Whilst all this had been going on, Mikey and Anita were still out lapping. Even though Anita had been racing for 12 hrs I only ever saw her in the pits. I knew she was in a tussle for a podium step in female masters. I only hoped she got through her last laps without binning it. As is the case for all of us, tiredness can produce bad lines, and bad lines tend to bad outcomes. Mudgey battled through cramps on her last lap to take second in category. Brilliant stuff! And just quietly, having been fearful of Stromlo for all these years, she now thinks its actually not bad at all!
I'd passed Mikey a handful of times on course and he always seemed chipper, although Ben later informed me he was having back issues on the first day. He soldiered on. Unfortunately, on his very last lap he got brought down unnecessarily by an over-zealous teams rider – finishing with a banged-up knee. But he finished it with a smile – a pretty impressive first 24solo, and a very respectable placing in a hot Masters field. Well done Mikey! As orrible as it might have been at times, I can assure you that they do get easier…just.
Thanks. Not mentioning any names Ben, but none of us could have achieved what we did without you. You gave just the right amount of beta, encouragement and coercion to help get me though this. I don’t quite know how to show my gratitude, but I’ll get you back somehow. To Mikey, thanks for being the impetus that made it happen. And to Mudgey, thanks for not telling me it was a terrible idea in the first place, for supporting me in the lead up, for pitching in on top of your own race, and for doing the lion’s share of getting it all back in the car, and taking it all out again at the other end, given my busted state. Sounds like I owe you one, yet again!