Wednesday, June 6, 2018


While Derby has been the town on everyone's lips for a few years, there's a nearby town which is often overlooked. Weldborough sits at the bottom of the famous Blue Tier trail but is used mainly as a stop off by mountain bikers before the next shuttle up to the Atlas trail and back to Derby.

In true form we left about an hour after we'd planned and then stopped at various towns on the way for provisions, coffee and again for provisions when I'd forgotten what I was supposed to get the first time. Arriving in the afternoon we set off with lights knowing the short winter day would be serving up sunset early. After warming up on Little Chook we started the hour long climb up the Old Blue Tier trail. This was the original descent but it makes a fantastic climbing trail with some technical rock sections. Picking a line to avoid putting a foot down is a fine way to pass the climb and the gradient is friendly enough to keep the effort under control. We reached the summit just in time to snap a scarlet setting sun and headed to the new Blue Tier descent.

This was worth the climb. As was the descent. It was all good. Do it.

According to Garmin it was 5 degrees but I'd pulled my arm warmers down to my wrists and was sweating up a storm in my jersey and undershirt. I guess I must be acclimatised now. I hadn't charged my lights since our last bike packing adventure so thought about turning them up bright and belting down as quickly as possible hoping they lasted. But I opted for running them low and hoping not to run into anything. It was such a still night and it was nice to flow down the trail, having the front wheel sent pinging in all directions by an unseen wet tree root or slippery rock. The advantage to not seeing was that I was very loose and ready to respond so avoided any crashes.   The closest we came to injury was when a possum fell out of a tree onto us, panicked, ran up another tree and promptly fell out again the scurried into the bushes. I guess he failed possum school and we almost strained something laughing.

We were lucky enough to be accommodated at A Place to Stay, which is one of the few house in the area, just a few hundred metres past the Weldborough pub. Now it's not that I don't absolutely adore camping in a Tasmanian winter, but occasionally it's nice to have luxuries like hot running water, a coffee machine, heat pump, full kitchen and a doona so light and fluffy it was like being covered by a toasty, warm cloud. Reclining in front of the fire, with a red wine and a double episode of Shetland on Netflix, we were lucky to even make it to bed before the coma set in.

A fire and a nanna-blanket are better than Stillnox

Waking to a frosty morning we went exploring another lesser known trail. So lesser know that its name might be the OC or RC trail depending on which map you consult. We rode out from the cabin and headed up Emu Road as per the previous night. However we turned left at Frome road until we spotted pink tape and a rough mountain bike trail on our left. The RC track is what we'd call 'old school' mountain biking. Not groomed, covered in derailleur ripping detritus with a few fallen trees and requiring some thoughtful line choice. In other words - awesome. It had clearly been used as part of the Mountain Bike Australia National MTB Marathon Champs as there was still plenty of course tape marking the way. This was both disappointing and helpful when the trail became unclear. We missed the map turn but came across an abandoned race arrow which directed us back onto Frome Road after a short hike a bike. The climb out is on well graded road and isn't especially steep. There's a surprising amount of climbing on Emu Road I don't remember experiencing as a descent on the way in. We decided on a daylight lap of Big Chook but I think I rode it better when I couldn't see the rocks and trees.

A ute, some MTBs and a cabin by the trails. What more is there in life?

 Ducking back to the cabin for some lunch and more brews we considered the idea of doing the Atlas - Dambusters loop but I didn't think I'd have enough light battery for another night finish. Next time. Instead we drove into Derby for a quick loop of Axehead, Long Shadows, Black Stump (love this track), Howler and Berms and Ferns. The downside to having the place to ourselves on a weekday is that absolutely nothing is open in Weldborough or Derby. I keep trying to give my money to businesses in this area and yet I keep failing due to their odd business hours. We were too hungry to wait for official dinner time at the Imperial so ended up raiding the Branxholm IGA. I sat in the lovely cabin that night puzzling over the fact that I wasn't camping and yet was still eating tinned soup for dinner.
Another sunset. Proof we stayed up past 5pm.
After a few hours riding each day it was pleasant to not be absolutely buckled after one of our 'weekends' away. We do have a 48 hour race this weekend though so rest assured we haven't gone completely soft. It was great to stay somewhere a bit off the well beaten path and explore some trails we'd normally bypass. I've been quite spoiled by A Place To Stay but will be sleeping in dirt in an adventure race soon just to maintain the balance. If you absolutely must stay in Derby APTS has another cabin there. Check out the Weldborough booking here. All the trails can be found on Trailforks and the cabin also has some trail maps to help you plan your adventures.

These partners make my adventures possible:

Ride Mechanic
Infinit Nutrition
Absolute Black
NS Dynamics
Flight Centre Sports & Events
Wild Earth Australia
CEP Australia

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


I started writing a detailed race report then got bored with it. Not that the event was boring. It was actually really neat and I highly recommend it to those beginning adventure racing. Why? Normal ARs usually follow a linear course and all checkpoints are mandatory and have to be visited in their numerical order. So the winners might do them all in 17 hours while the slower teams are out there for 24 hours of more. In a rogaine though, you can get as many or as few checkpoints as you like and get them in any order. It’s up to you to work out the most efficient route. The catch is that, usually, you can’t get them all and they’re all worth different points (the more difficult ones to find are worth more) so you’re forced to strategise. Time becomes a commodity to be spent wisely. If you don’t make it back to HQ before the 24 hours is up you start having points docked at an alarming rate. The team with the most points in 24 hours is the winner but everyone finishes at about the same time which is somewhat more social.

Lake Samsonvale at 'too early' o'clock.

While not the most scenic of races, Rogue did take us to many of my old training grounds around Brisbane. Waves of nostalgia hit on the road to Mount Nebo and South Boundary fire road as these are where my cycling career was started and climbing legs honed. The inclusion of the Bunyaville single track and the skills park at Enoggera Dam (which I helped design) were a master stroke and I’m still not sure how race organiser, Liam St Pierre, managed to extract the permits for that. I remember organising a mountain bike camp for teenagers in Brisbane Forest Park a few years ago and having to promise to sacrifice my first-born if anyone dropped a gel wrapper. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make these events happen.

Russ with his race-face on

Some of the highlights:

During the night, while collecting a check point on said single track, we came across two guys on foot. After some brief chat they nervously asked “Umm, did you see a couple of bikes on your way here? We’ve, ah, forgotten where we put them…” It was easy to do as you dumped your rig on the ground and hiked into the scrub to find CPs. It’s a good idea to remember which way you came in.

While you spend a good deal of time taking care of each other, there’s always time to have a chuckle at a team mate’s misery. John had stomach issues on the last run leg, hadn’t eaten for a couple of hours and ended up on tow on the monotonous road back to HQ. In the morning stillness a howl of pain rang out and I thought he’d broken his leg. The tow rope had snapped and recoiled into abdomen like a gun shot. This was not a highlight for John, obviously.

The last few hours of a race are spent thinking about what food I’d like to inhale and where I might get it. Crossing the line to free pizza was bliss although a coffee van would have certified it as ‘best race ever’.


The first short run leg was fast(ish) and I spent the rest of the race wanting to amputate my left leg. My ongoing hamstring injury didn’t like the increase in pace, tightened up and resulted in a searing pain in my arse for the next 12 hours. Oddly, the 9-hour bike leg seemed to sort it out. Or it preferred the shorter strides as everyone shuffled through the later run. Having to roll out of the kayak and crawl to CPs with a paralysed limb wasn’t too graceful.

I knew our navigators were tired when we paddled to the wrong island on the final kayak. It probably cost us second place but I guess we don’t race for second. As tempting as it is, don’t follow other teams as they’re often lost too.

That feeling of looking in my last food bag and realising there was absolutely nothing in there I wanted to force into my digestive system. My latest discovery is that jam goes poorly on wraps when stored for any significant amount of time. Savoury is king.

I like to include at least one glimpse into the mind of an adventure racer or a helpful tip. There is a perception out there that those at the front of the pack don’t hurt as much or have unlimited time to train and prepare. I turned up to this race stressed and sleep deprived from 2 weeks straight of work and 1am bed-times needing to submit two uni assignments before I left Hobart. I’d struggled fitting in training and introduced the 59-minute workout to my repertoire in an effort to do at least something. Feeling out of my depth fitness-wise and limping around with a dysfunctional hamstring there was a good hour of self-pity and a few tears. After that came acceptance – this is what I started with and I just needed to work with it. The most damaging emotion in sport is self-pity and the thought that you’re the only one who has struggles. Let’s face it – most of us running around out there have some serious issues.

It has made me realise I need to put my body first and start attending to some of the niggles before they become more serious. Some physiotherapy and strengthening work will be taking priority over endurance training. And it’s not like I only JUST realised that I’m overcommitted in life (I don’t over-train, I over-live according to my sports doc) it’s that I haven’t come to the point where I’m willing to give up any of the things I have on my plate. My job is amazing, I love the study although it has added to the stress, and I haven’t many years left to really compete at the top level in mountain biking and adventure racing. I’m just waiting until we colonise Mars where the days are 25 hours long. That would be perfect.

(Oh yeah, results. We were leading by 30 minutes after the monster bike leg but had a lot of trouble with CP 48 on the trek and the foray to the wrong island on the kayak bumped us down to 3rd place.)

Fellow Tiger Adventure members and Hobart hitter Emma Weitnauer. Both in the hurt box.

Thanks to:

Ride Mechanic
Flight Centre Sports & Events
Infinit Australia
Wild Earth
NS Dynamics
CEP Australia
Absolute Black

Sunday, March 11, 2018


I sit in the room of a spartan back packers lodge in Te Anau, waiting for the glacial internet to load. I haven’t missed this. Technology. I have endured days of deprivation in the wilderness but at no point did I wish for Facebook or email. The mood of team Hardtale is a mix of despondence and relief. We crossed the finish line of Godzone Chapter 7 late last night, relatively uninjured apart from a few scrapes and blisters. Amid stories of dislocated elbows, badly infected feet and delirium we were fortunate. It tasted bitter due to the fact that we finished unranked on a shortened course.
Unranked is a weird place. It means you get to continue in the event although you no longer satisfy the definition of a ranked team. You have lost a team member or failed to find a check point (CP) on course. For other offences you are given a time penalty or disqualified depending on the infringement. But let’s start at the beginning.

The crew: Me, Matt Bacon, Steven Todkill, Aurelian Pennman

Team Hardtale has a long history in adventure racing however I only met the guys – Matt, Steve and Aurelian – a few days before the event. Their regular female racer was unavailable so they required a replacement on short notice. We had struggled into Queenstown trying to thwart airline baggage allowances with the voluminous amounts of mandatory gear required for this race.

So much gear!

With the usual preliminaries done, maps marked out, it was no time at all before race day. Running down the main street of the quiet lakeside town of Te Anau, teams started inflating pack rafts in a park, throwing kit into dry bags and preparing for the paddle across the lake to the river Wairau River. I finally found comfort in a pack raft using a Sea to Summit Hydraulic bag stuff with gear. The water was moving pleasantly fast which was a welcome change from the usual shallow water boat-drag of Australian pack raft sections.

The boat-drag came next as we had to portage two rafts and 80 kilos of gear up a cliff. It was a mad scramble of teams but there were also many instances of teams helping each other, particularly those of the same nation. Everyone wants to beat the Kiwis on their home ground. Carrying rafts is awkward at best and then you have life jackets, paddles and dry bags that cut into your hands when you carry them for any distance. It was interesting looking at the different styles people adopted – over the shoulder or on the head. I clipped a dry bag to my life jacket to save my arms and only managed to crush my windpipe.

Clambering through the forest in this part of New Zealand is like walking on a giant, bouncy sponge. Most of what you think is solid turns on not to be. It’s kind on the feet until you punch through a decomposed layer up to your knee. We couldn’t trust anything we grabbed hold of not to be rotten and just fall away in our hands. This was inconvenient on the next trek when we scaled a mossy cliff after taking a questionable route up a river. I was going through the explanation to travel insurance in my head. How I fell from a vertical face with crumbling moss and the reason I was there is that a man with a map had told me I needed to go that way. I’m undecided if this sport makes you push your limits or merely suspend good judgement.

Once above the tree line it all felt worth the struggle. A setting sun while trekking across the mountain ridge was like a scene straight from Lord of the Rings, which was filmed mostly in this area. What appears to be snow on the peaks is actually white lichen, but this doesn’t lessen the spectacular effect. It had been a solid effort getting to the saddle but in the darkness we saw lights of teams some 500 metres above us who had taken the advice to follow the ridges to the extreme.

My nemesis in any adventure race is heights.  So imagine my delight when we had to abseil 150 metres. Reaching the top in the dark I was relieved that, yet again, I wouldn’t be able to see how far away the ground was. Just get over the edge, keep your feet on the rock and lower slowly. Oh Christ – where did the rock go? Oh, there’s no more rock, just 140 metres of dangling in the air. Kill me now. I was shaking, shallow breathing and heavy on the braking device which was just prolonging the experience. My team mates dropped like stones and I could see everything as it was thoughtfully lit up by floodlights.

Planning what food to take on a two day trek is difficult. I didn’t want to take anything too heavy as I I’d be carrying it over mountains. A good mix of sweet and savoury is my goal but this time I ended up with too many muesli bars I had no appetite for. Walking afforded the opportunity to eat with both hands and the thing I never got sick of was weetbix, powdered milk, Infinit Raw protein powder and a splash of trail mix.  I feel I could do a whole race on that combination.

Shortly after the abseil, our lead navigator, Steve, started vomiting. He’d be working hard getting us off the mountain, forgotten to eat, then tried to catch up putting more food in than his stomach could process. We had a 30 minute power nap under a dry log then continued slowly to let him recover.  I towed him for a while but it was difficult in the terrain and I nearly got pulled backward several times while climbing up rooty slopes.

After a fun raft down some small rapids to the next TA we mounted the bikes for a relatively short ride. It was then I was introduced to the delights of Gorse – an pest shrub with sharp, spiny foliage. Having to punch a trail through this was like diving into a knife drawer. But we were in the early stages, still highly motivated so what was a few festering wounds?

Racing is such a selfish thing to do. All of our team had families waiting at home so we tried to minimise the time away. Many of these races say they go for 6 days but we’re often finished in half that and then forced to wait around idly for our departures. We had booked to fly out on Day 10 of the race meaning we would need to be finished by Day 8 to have any hope of getting our gear, cleaning and packing to make our flights home. Self-imposed cut-offs had been set which meant if we hadn’t reached certain points we could need to short-course ourselves to get back to Te Anau. At the start of the next pack raft we were on schedule so things were looking good.

Trekking with the extra weight of the packrafts, PFDs, paddles and wetsuits was an unfamiliar burden. Heavy pack training would have been more appropriate than run training. We hadn’t slept for two nights and were zig-zagging across the road so we grabbed an hour laying in a roadside ditch. A film crew spotted us, jumped out and started filming inches from our faces which didn’t help with the shut-eye.

Paddling across Lake Hauroko was the calm before the storm of the Wairaurahiri River. Rafting in Australia is like being pin-balled between rocks and having to walk your boat through shallow water. I didn’t see any rocks here. Just water. A LOT of water, moving very fast. Being in a raft with Matt, a veteran racer of 16 years experience, I felt fairly comfortable. That was until he confessed halfway down that he’d never been in water this big before. Wait – what? It was relentless with very few flat sections between the furious rapids. I could actually see the gradient of the river like it was down hill mountain biking. After 2 hours of hard paddling to stay upright my back locked up, but was forced to keep going so we didn’t die. We saw several teams fall and need to be rescued by their team mates.

Oddly, this was our favourite section (once it was over) and we finished exhausted but exhilarated and full of adrenalin. Arriving in Waitutu Lodge we changed to dry clothes and got into the trek. I’d opted for thermal tights with waterproof pants over the top as it had started to rain. After ten minutes of walking I realised the thermals were rubbing in a place that I would definitely need on the 160 km bike ride. Taking my mandatory knife I cut the crotch out of my pants and ‘free-balled’ in comfort.

Photo credit: Godzone Adventure. You can even tell we're going down hill. 

By this time I suspected Fiordland was another name for swamp as we plodded to CP 17 through thick mud, moving at one kilometre per hour. It was dark, raining and the rush of the rapids was long gone. Given the rate of travel with no hope that the remaining 30 kilometres was any better some calculations were mad. We estimated the next four checkpoints would take another day at least. Three of us didn’t have enough food but we could ration and go without. The flights were the main concern.
The boys were tired and I was soaked so laying in the mud for 5 hours to sleep was a recipe for hypothermia. Instead of pushing on to the hut six kilometres to the West, the team decided to turn back to the lodge to sleep. For $35 a bed and a hot shower were the best money I spent all trip. But having the male volunteer tell me to take my overpants off before entering the lodge brought the recollections of my revealing under pants. I hope my race bib covered all the important bits.

Feeling somewhat refreshed the next morning the 40 kilometre trek along the South Coast track was laborious with heavy packs. It was a boring viaduct with no view of the actual coast but at least it was easy walking. It seemed an age since my feet were dry but they were still in good shape. I lathered them in Ride Mechanic Moonshine at every opportunity. A hot tip from an event medic – put hand sanitiser on them when airing them to dry them out and kill any bugs. Teams regularly developed severe blisters and trench foot in this race, sometimes requiring evacuation. The first 5 hours of this hike I kept thinking there was no way I could take the discomfort of my pack straps biting into my shoulder for a minute longer. The second 5 hours I spent wondering why my pack didn’t hurt any more. Did my pain receptors just finally admit defeat or had I done permanent nerve damage?

A bridge over troubled waters: on the way back after admitting defeat on the South Coast track.

Transition Area 3 was an oasis in the desert. There was a coffee van sent by the gods with free beverages for racers. The Godzone team also supplied dehydrated meals of which I sampled quite a few. Despite expecting to be on our bikes and away, we were told we were now unranked due to missing the last four checkpoints. According to the rules, which we clearly hadn’t read, unranked teams would be sent on the short course. The guys were devastated and protested but to no avail. We now had 24 hours to kill at the TA as a penalty and to let the faster teams on the full course pass us. After a 10 hour sleep we woke to a stunning day so I rode into to nearest town with a Kiwi team for lunch at the pub. After a 40 km round trip we were off on bikes a few hours later on the short course loop.

I may have proposed marriage to this woman.

Our navigation and pace was good on the tricky bike leg. We came across many teams asleep in the forest but we pushed on and got through with only a short nap in a sheep paddock. Woken by falling rain the next 80 kms of road were miserable. However the excitement of the women in TA 7 was some recompense as we were the first team there with the leaders still on the long course trek. There was better news – we was no ‘dark zone’ for the paddle tonight so we’d be permitted to paddle on the lake at night instead of camping within sight of the finish line.

The 20 kilometre trek entered the Kepler track from Manapouri but then we climbed through the bush on narrow track lined with stoat traps up to the top of the Hartz Mountains. We trekked through ferns, under and over fallen trees and occasionally fell through rotting logs. For ten hours all I saw were moss and ferns. Enough already. Just give me a view to make this all worthwhile. I imagine being the navigator is a bit more engaging. You’re always thinking and working out distances and directions. For someone who barely looks at a map, ten hours of following footsteps is an exercise in monotony which has no definitive end. When you’re told you have five kilometres to go this is meaningless unless you know if you’re covering 5 kilometres each hour or crawling along at one. Once we’re off track I lose all direction and sense of distance. I know it’s a logical science so I’m determined to learn more if only to keep the boredom at bay. So if you see me wearing a compass at the next race, try not to laugh.

Paddling to the finish was a little embarrassing. The winning team had been through only an hour before so there was a crowd there cheering. We were second over the line but essentially a DNF. I wish they’d let us paddle to the side and sneak out the back. In retrospect, I’d have liked to try for the further checkpoints and if we had run out of time later on, simply have ridden back to Te Anau from the next TA. At least we would have tried to complete the course. Godzone is not your regular AR. Plan to be out there for the full 10 days and be pleasantly surprised if you make it home in less. Pay attention to the mandatory kit as you will use all of it. Make sure your tent sleeps four comfortably as you will definitely be in it. This is not a race for beginners. You must be well-skilled in navigation and white-water and generally being a hard arse.

Nathan Fav'ea's team finish on a glorious day in Te Anau. Definition of a hard arse.

My favourite bits of kit:
Sea to Summit paddling gloves & Back country Thai Chicken Curry @ Wild Earth Australia
Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
Salomon Sense 5 (Soft ground) shoes

Thanks to the Hardtale team for looking after me and to my supporters:

Ride Mechanic
Flight Centre Sports & Events
Infinit Nutrition
Wild Earth Australia
NS Dynamics
CEP Socks

Sunday, February 25, 2018


The parking ticket was the last straw. You know - that one thing, quite a small annoyance in isolation, that just tips you over the edge. A failure to decipher Hobart's unique parking system. That 20 minutes I'd agonised over the relative prices of insulated paddling kit had been in vain. I'd rather have bought the Sharkskins and avoided the fine. Thoughts of 'why does this happen to me' surfaced, as if I'd been the subject of particularly improbable misfortune.

On the contrary. Having great fortune bestowed upon me necessitated the shopping excursion. An opportunity to compete in a widely acclaimed and hideously expensive race at a greatly reduced cost. (Godzone, filling in for an injured team member in case you don't follow me on Facebook.) That I had turned this into a negative emotional state only encouraged further feelings of self-loathing. What the fuck was I doing? Seriously? Forty years old, barely educated, financially insecure and going to play explorers in the forest was the best use of my time? I recall a former team member stating in the midst of an adventure race that this is "just a silly game, really".

Behind every blog-worthy adventure and envy-inducing Instagram photo is the struggle between who I am and who I 'should' be. It would be easy, and lazy, to ascribe this to things like societal expectation. Certainly when my daughter was young there was the mother-guilt of being away competing for months, and being so tired I was barely there when I was home. But now, with a teenager who resides in another state, it was time to let go of this one.

The Should-be me is the alternate person I was could have been. Back in high school, when possibilities were easy to imagine and near infinite. The paths diverging in the woods yet to be encountered. When I was 17 and barely educated and financially insecure. What did the intervening 23 years mean? Why don't I seem to have progressed? What was I hoping to find out about myself in the middle of a 50 hour trek in the Kiwi Fiordlands that I hadn't already discovered in the previous 12 years of physically punishing competition? Did I take the less traveled path but ended up in the most common situation anyway?

The Should-be me would stay home and consolidate my ten month existence in Hobart. She would be an available remedial therapist to her clients who didn't want to see someone else but simply couldn't come on a non-pension week. She would be a reliable employee to the business owners who had given her a chance to resurrect a massage career out of sudden financial necessity. Didn't I owe it to my partner, my daughter...didn't I owe it to someone to stay home and be normal?

I'm afraid. Not of 50 hour treks over large mountains or being upside down in ferocious rapids. My fear is of my life meaning nothing and going through physical and mental trials while learning nothing useful.  And possibly of living on cat food when I'm 70 because I spent my life learning and doing things of no value to society in general. Doing Godzone doesn't scare me. It's coming home and finding that I'm still the same that terrifies.

I would like to push myself to the absolute limit to finally say "enough. I have nothing left" and to draw a line under this physical foolishness. Godzone has a chance of doing this. But people I know ride the Iditarod year after year. What if that point never comes?

So back to the parking ticket and Hobart and throwing bits of mandatory kit in a bag while staying the right side of baggage allowance, doing three weeks of work in one so my coaching clients don't just stare at their bikes aimlessly not knowing what to do while I'm M.I.A. The indecision and guilt were gnawing at me. As I said, exasperated to my partner "I never thought it would be so hard to work out what's going to make me happy!"

Then two significant people in my life made the same statement: Happiness is a choice. Choose to do crazy races in awesome places and be happy. Choose to build a career and pursue life stability and be happy. Stop waiting for some event or place or person to make you happy. Life is a series of experiences which you can learn from but which don't need to affect your state of happiness unless you choose to let them.

Of course that doesn't mean that all choices are equal. There are choices that will predictably make us unhappy. But deciding between a bucket-list adventure and two weeks otherwise spent building a rewarding career is hardly a burden. Most of the choices I give myself an ulcer over are arbitrary. I should use the coin toss method more often. The other litmus test is this: If I was told I had a month to live, what would I have regretted not doing? Sounds extreme but then tomorrow is never guaranteed.

In case you were wondering, there is no point to this. Just some thoughts I wanted to share in case they're thoughts EVERYONE has. And to say thanks James and Trev. It's your fault I'm here!

Monday, January 29, 2018


I never thought I'd be writing a race report about the time we won it on the final paddle. My love/hate relationship with water sports means I'd love to be good at them, but hate actually getting in the water. And I've been spending a lot of time in the water while paddling. Thankfully the craft provided in adventure racing are near uncapsizable and take no skill to stay in so I can focus on thrashing about with my inefficient stroke and the growing blisters on my hands.

X Marathon 48 hour race was based in the charming seaside village of Marlo for 2018. It doesn't pass my threshold as a town lacking a major supermarket or, at least, an IGA. But it had the convenience of the holiday park being a one minute walk to the pub which was doubling as race HQ. After driving 5 hours from Melbourne airport the last thing I want to do is try to source dinner but the organisers Sergey and Maria are veteran racers themselves so have the foresight to include pre-race dinner as part of the entry. Being able to focus on marking the maps rather than cooking is just one of the many small things which make this event competitor friendly.

The 4.30am wake up was less friendly on race day and we piled into buses for the 3 hour drive to MacKillop's Bridge on the Snowy River. It was already heating up when the gun went off at 9am and was forecast to hit high 30s later on. Not exactly what you want for an ultra endurance race. Our team, Wild Earth - Tiger Adventure saw Gary Sutherland, John Laughlin and I team up for the 3rd time with Sunshine Coast hard-man Russell Stringer completing the team.

Starting with a split leg, Russ and John ran to CP1 on a nearby hill top while Gary and I pack rafted down river to the pick up point. And waited. And waited. After a few coo-ees in the bush the boys appeared after taking a longer route than planned and we'd been passed by a few teams. We were then passed by a lot more teams when our raft deflated and we spent time looking for the puncture. Hot tip: make sure the air valve cap on your raft is always done up extra tight. Reinflated, we started making up spots and enjoyed the more exciting rapids on course, with Gary and I taking just one swim in the process.

What do you call a man coming through the bush? Russell - sucking in the big ones at the top of the first mountain climb

Pack rafting is possibly the least comfortable thing I've ever done. I'm too short to sit in the raft without my elbows hitting the sides. While kneeling gives superior power transfer, it leaves my knee caps prone to being shattered by submerged rocks and 6 hours in that position, leaves my body screaming for mercy. Raft designers - can you please get across this and build decent seats into your products? Using our 'waterproof' dry bag as a seat only revealed it to be neither air nor water tight.

Out of the rafts we quickly packed them and hiked straight up a mountain. 400 metres ascent over 800 metres horizontal in 36 degrees and my calves weren't the only things burning. It was late afternoon and we'd only complete the first leg and now had our bikes to build. The first MTB had 2400 metres of climbing in it which made my Hobart-standard 30 tooth chain ring a good choice. I hadn't drunk enough during the rafting and felt quite nauseous with a pounding headache as the sun set. Some paracetamol and ibuprofen sorted that out so I was in a better state than a lot of racers who were vomiting with heat stroke and unable to continue. Getting back on top of my fluids and a steady diet of warm, stale Vegemite and cheese sandwiches kept the sodium levels nicely balanced.

Passing a couple of teams during the hike we were now in 3rd with the race favourites in front of us. The uphill riding was tough but the downhills were unbelievably dicey. Extraordinarily steep and loose I knew some less experienced riders may lose some skin or worse. It was great to have a team of guys competent on a tricky descent and my heart was in my mouth several times keeping up. There's often no single-trail in races but that doesn't mean it's not technical. We take bikes places they have no business being. More on that later.

At the next transition we headed straight out on the rogaine. After suffering on the first run and bike leg, the boys sent Gary and I out to get the most distant CPs. We trotted around spotting the two other teams out on course. It was close racing but we focused on making less mistakes, keeping moving and let the race unfold. The former didn't go well as we added a degree of difficultly by forgetting the CP descriptions for this leg. Luckily most of the flags were in the places you'd expect them to be. Coming together with Explore East Gippsland during the next pack raft was a real lesson. It was one of those frustrating rivers where the water was alternately deep then too shallow to paddle meaning a lot of in and out of the raft. The experience of racers, like Rob and Kathryn Preston, showed as their paddle to run transition was smooth and efficient while ours was awkward by comparison. After an hour Gary and I had our routine sorted - I jumped out and grabbed the gear bag while he shouldered the raft. Except that one time I failed to hear him ask for a food break and we both kept walking, leaving the raft behind us. Communication is key. 

The electronic wrist bands are a welcome addition meaning all team members have to go to all check points. No more dodgy punch cards!

Caving was a fun addition to the race but non-tourist caves meant a lot of sliding through small spaces would be required. This section was untimed in that it was estimated to take 20-30 minutes but we could not leave on the next leg until our mandatory 60 minute stop was up. This enabled us to relax a little and really enjoy the caves which, after the initial tight squeeze, opened up into fascinating caverns. Having to navigate both horizontally and vertically is a special skill which we discovered John possessed at our XPD race. The hardest part was finding the entrance but after that we got through quickly and had time to pack our rafts and assemble our bikes to leave right on the the end of our hour 'rest'. 

We had remarked on the lack of hiking in this race. Well there turned out to be plenty of hiking, it was just in bike shoes. We passed Explore Gippsland just after the start of the second mountain bike leg, collected some CPs and then hit the river crossing. One pack raft was provided by the race to transport 4 bikes and people across the river. This meant the bikes got a dry ride while the people swam across with any 'not to be wet' items thrown in the boat. This did not include my race food but the ziploc bags keep things dry 90% of the time. I was discovering that wet bread is a lot easier to eat than dry bread when one is low on saliva anyway.  A short time later we started the 4km hike-a-bike section. This may have been a steep, rough walking trail 20 years ago but now it was overgrown and littered with fallen trees and rock sections. The trail would have been difficult with just a backpack, but trying to carry a bike up there was an exercise in frustration and sheer willpower with branches catching handlebars and cleats slipping on rock. We caught up to Thunderbolt after a short time and it was nice to chat and take our minds off the badness. One advantage to doing it at night is we didn't have the extra challenge of the sun beating down on us while we pushed. Four kilometers took us two hours so to say it was slow going was an understatement.

Making sure the precious bikes and maps stay dry while we prepare to swim. Priorities.

We banked on emptying the legs on the bike as we wouldn't need them on the final paddle. Pulling into transition slightly ahead of Thunderbolt I had a wave of dread. I needed to go to the bathroom. And no, not to wee. There was no way I could sit in a boat for 3 hours and hold in what urgently needed to get out. Damn all those sandwiches. I begged off to the toilet block to also fill my Camelbak and then suffered the ultimate female dilemma - no toilet paper. In a scene which took me back to my old nightclubbing days, the woman in the stall next to me had her husband run to the men's and help us both out with supplies. The sisterhood is alive and well in the country town of Orbost. 

Unloaded, we hit the water about 200 metres behind Thunderbolt. You know how the story ends, but here's how it unfolded. Gary basically called me soft and implied I'd given up because we are not known as a paddling team. This is because I'm fully aware that at least one half of the team (the Tasmanian half) does almost zero training for this discipline except for the odd trainer session in the garage. That was enough for us to start closing the gap, while the boys tried to hang on in our wash. Yes, being slightly pissed off is a fine motivator. Once we'd caught up, sitting in the other team's slipstream make paddling about 50% easier, like drafting does in a bike racing. The first team to reach the checkpoint has the advantage as they create a gap while the second team punches their wrist bands into the CP sensor. Working hard to close the gap after the first water CP, we knew we couldn't keep hitting the CPs as the second team. The effort would blow us apart.

The next CP involved leaving the boats, trekking across a field, on an aquaduct where we spotted the CP flag - across a disgusting, brown canal in which something may have died recently. But almost-winning makes you do crazy things so we all jumped in, swam across, back, then headed back to the boats. The final run across the field was the only chance to get a gap and we took it. I have no idea where my leg speed came from and I knew I'd pay dearly for it later but we hit the water first and turned ourselves inside out for the next 6 kilometers to the final CP on a beach at the entrance to the bay. It, of course, required a sand run, which is usually how these races end. No wonder I have such painful memories of running on the beach. We punch the CP and ran back to the boats, passing Thunderbolt still making their way to the marker. Congratulations were given as they realised we would most likely hold our lead on the short paddle to the finish line. We actually extended it as I cracked the whip, adamant that the other team wouldn't give up until we'd finished. It's not often I hear Gary tell me to slow down and take it easy on the last part of a race.

 After a couple of now-famous near misses last year, it was more relief than elation crossing the line in first place. It was special doing it with a great team of guys. We bicker like siblings at times, but it's because we can and still look after each other and get the job done. The course was 220 kilometers of fun and challenge, although the heat ramped up the latter. It's not often you look forward to getting wet in ARs and collecting checkpoints across waterfall pools we were almost tempted to stay in a little longer. I heard a lot of reports of people suffering from the heat. But if anyone was going to suffer it was the Tasmanians. That we not only survived but managed to win, shows that functioning in extreme temperatures is possible by having strategies in place to look after yourself. I love this sport because the conditions - both hot and cold - are treated as just another 'feature'. There's no 'hot weather rule' in AR. You just deal with it. To those who vomited their way through - I salute you. 

Must have abs of steel to get a spot on this team.

Hugs all round!
Huge thank you to my team mates - you guys are amazing! Thanks for your never say die attitude and your freakish sense of direction. Thanks to Sergey and Maria of Adventure Junkies for another awesome event. We can't wait to come back for 2019. Thanks also to my supporters who make my racing possible:

Ride Mechanic
FC Sports and Events
Infinit Nutrition Australia
NS Dynamics
CEP Australia
Wild Earth Australia 

Saturday, October 28, 2017


“If we had seen that at the time we would have put a few stitches in it.” One of the event staff was surveying the gash on my knee at the finish line. I was reclining on a pool lounge, falling asleep with a beer in one hand and a ham, cheese and tomato toasted sandwich in the other. There are a lot of rules in the ‘real world’ which don’t apply when you’re adventure racing. Getting standard medical attention is one of them. I’d felt the jab of a sharp branch at 2am while on the hike-from-hell as the third leg of the race would be known. But I was deathly cold and covered in thermals at the time and wouldn’t actually see the deep cut for another 12 hours when I undressed after being soaked in the pack-rafting leg. It looked clean-ish and I figured septicemia wouldn’t kick off in earnest for another couple of days so I didn’t bother about it. This is not meant to sound like some sort of foolish bravado. It’s just the point you get to in a 72 hour continuous race when you truly don’t care about most things.

Let me start by saying that I hated this event. I actually said this to the organiser who I had dreamed about punching in the face for most of the race. At the time I didn’t know he was the organiser as I was delirious and it was quite the faux pas. But like most of these events, the passing of time has mellowed my mood and I appreciate the landscapes I encountered and what we, as a team, achieved by making it to the end and ‘beating’ the course. For this event, just making it through to the finish line in Eaglehawk was a victory that many failed to realise. There will be debate about whether this is good for the sport of adventure racing. I empathise with those who took a week of leave from work and gave up weekends to prepare for this, and then found themselves lost, hungry and demoralised after the first day. But I would also not like to see AR tamed down to the point where anyone, regardless of competence, can make it to the finish line.

The 3.30am bus ride to Lake Eucumbene was uncalled for as we arrived an hour earlier than required. There’s half a night’s sleep missed and we hadn’t even started yet. Despite rumours of snow hikes at Kosciusko, we would be running around the lake which, at 30% capacity, was like a moonscape. I hadn’t run for 2 months with an ankle injury and a dodgy hamstring tendon, so starting with a 50km jog exploded my legs immediately. There was no route choice so there were several teams side-by-side which meant the pace was much higher than usual as no team wanted to let the others out of sight.

On to the mountain bikes, thank god, and I was immediately more chatty and comfortable. This is when the team starts loading me up with gear, like the team tent, until I become less chatty and comfortable. I’d only got my bike out of the box from my Swiss race to service the forks. I then ran out of time and my partner had to reassemble the bike before it got stuffed back in the box for this race. It took me a full hour of thinking ‘something feels weird’ to realise that there were an inch worth of spacers UNDER the stem which should have been on top. Feeling like I should have a shopping basket on the front for a leisurely Sunday jaunt it turned out to be a happy accident and the first time my back hasn’t ached from wearing a pack while riding. A more upright riding position is definitely worth considering.

The third leg: 50km trek, 10-16 hours. Or so the race book said. Look, I’m all for legs being difficult. But when you say the winning teams will do it in 10 hours and it turns into closer to 20, then you have to expect some flack.  Many teams ran out of food, although water was plentiful on the course if you had purification tablets. Personally, I packed the bare minimum of food – a mistake I’ll never make again. My team mates apparently packed a buffet but not wanting to leave them short, I went for a few hours without eating and hunger flatted badly. People, including other teams, were very generous with their extra rations, but everyone was also holding back and hiding snacks like concentration camp interns, not quite knowing how much longer the trek would last.

This was the pivotal leg. Do you go up the ridge or up the creek? After the abseil, the track petered out and we were told the going would be slow. But I have never encountered brush that thick or spiky so when we happened on the creek, it seemed a welcome relief and easier going. Rock-hopping was even pleasant for the first hour as we came across pretty waterfalls. By 2am it had got a lot less fun. There were many log jams to be climbed over, slippery rocks to be negotiated and walking in the creek bed was like a foot massage with a hammer. We estimated our progress at one whole kilometre per hour and that is not an exaggeration. Trying to skirt around a deep pool I lost a hand hold and fell into the water up to my chest wearing every item of clothing I had. Shivering my way to sunrise I’d almost completely lost the will to continue. There’s only so many times you can say “this is horse-shit” before your team mates get over hearing it too.

Nearly crying tears of joy, we left the creek at sunrise and crested the ridge for a magnificent view of the rocky summit and surrounds. We were reminded of the beauty and remoteness of this type of racing and felt like we were the only ones on earth…until we rounded the next corner and saw another team experiencing the same thing. Of all the infinite routes and times which could have been taken, it is spooky how often you run into people out there.

Over three days not every leg is memorable and it’s not my intention provide a blow by blow description of each stage. However you tend to remember what you were doing during the night hours when you’d traditionally been sleeping. Maybe because the nights seem to drag on while you fight the urge to slumber. Popping No Doze like tick-tacs only works for a while. The long blinks will come. The second night we spent on the least enjoyable mountain bike ride I’ve ever had. Another route choice – longer and flatter, or shorter with some climbs. We chose the latter and we chose wrong. The night consisted of rolling down hills then dismounting and walking out bikes up impossibly steep fire roads. At one point I almost fell backwards off the wall I was climbing and it was only my team mate reaching for my bike that kept me put. This went on for hours and at times I swore it was just the same four hills and we were going around in circles. At one point we descended into a field bordering a compound of satellite dishes lit up with flood lights. A voice over a loud speaker was making announcements, I assume, about the orientation of the dishes. I was waiting for a ‘release the hounds’ call for the four riders getting a little too close but it was very cool and I was congratulating the race crew for leading us down here. But then we realised we weren’t even supposed to be there and the checkpoint we were looking for was hours in another direction. As the navigators stopped to discuss amendments, I took to having four minute naps in the dirt. It’s amazing how effectively a bike helmet can function as a pillow.

By this time we realised that this race would go a day longer than expected. Do you get that? We didn’t underestimate by a few hours but a WHOLE DAY. Mentally that’s hard to get your head around. The temptation is to think “Oh, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe the rest of the legs will be shorter than we think”. But I consider that just delaying disappointment and it’s easier to take the medicine early and accept that I’m going to be spending one more night without sleep than planned. I’ll admit that I struggled more in the first two days than I’d done in any other race. I just didn’t have it mentally. There had been emotional upheaval in my non-racing life, I was carrying injuries so had no confidence in my body and went into the race feeling tired and burnt out. When that’s your starting point, putting yourself through an expedition length event is probably not going to lead anywhere good. But when the sun rose on the third day a Zen-like state had taken over. I stopped thinking about anything outside of the race and just moved forward. I had no other life. No place existed other than where I was right at that moment with my team mates.

That’s not to say I was in great shape. As we trekked the 12 km to the start of the pack raft section, I held on to a team mates back pack while I slept walking forward. I was technically just ‘resting my eyes’ but it’s interesting how much it helps. This is where I’ll reiterate the importance of foot care. DO NOT let your feet deteriorate. I’d totally stuffed up in this area by changing my tried and tested routine. The combination of Ride Mechanic Moonshine chamois cream and my CEP compression socks had proven their blister-free worth over many 24-48 hour races. But the socks were difficult to get off for longer races when changing socks is really necessary. So I’d opted for normal running socks. Due to the river sand getting into my shoes in the treks the friction had actually worn the poorer quality socks away so there were just bare threads remaining and my feet had been exfoliated for about 100 km. Walking was painful, running was agony.

The ice cold water of the Murrumbidgee River provided blessed relief for aching parts as we mounted the pack rafts. My knee pads had been misplaced in our haste to get gear packed into storage compartments so the sneaky submerged rock became my nemesis, ready to shatter my knee caps as I knelt on the thin raft floor. While tackling the rapid sections Jarad instructed me in the superman position, laying over the front of the boat while still paddling. We were making excellent headway and even started having ‘fun’. Boys being boys suddenly we were racing our other two team mates into rapids and playing dodgems with the boats. It’s all fun and games until someone ends up backwards in a rapid and flips their boat. The cold swim woke me up but Jarad suffered a broken rib and would wince in pain for the rest of the race. The mandatory helmets saved both our lives.

At the end of the paddle we had only completed half the legs, but they were the longer ones so we felt like we’d broken the back of the race. I’ll abbreviate a few of the remaining legs as they were mostly uninteresting aside from the fact that we were getting closer to the centre of Canberra and civilisation. The next trek was baking hot and hampered by the fact that Tom’s foot had fallen asleep paddling and he was limping through most of it. Mountain biking up to Mount Stromlo, site of the MTB World Cup and World Championships, brought back memories of where MTB really started for me back in 2007. Depressingly we never got to ride any of the plentiful single-track there during the race. Arriving pumped for our final paddle we were then delayed by two hours while the organisers tried to find our paddle bag which they had misplaced with all our gear. Thanks to Tod Vickery from Adventure 1 who shouted us some pizzas and a van to nap in while we waited.

On the final trek leg we were given a list of questions. The answers to which would be found at various landmarks in the centre of Canberra. Starting the urban rogaine not long after midnight I felt like I was back at school fulfilling the obligatory educational component of a field trip. It was surreal running (OK, briskly walking) through the deserted city streets. We proceeded to the War Memorial, which is definitely worth a look, to find out how many inscriptions were on the inside right-hand wall of the Vietnam memorial. 34. No, 33. Count again. Definitely 34. And try counting the flag poles on the lawn at Old Parliament house when you haven’t really slept for 65 hours. This was actually quite a fun activity and I know a lot more about Canberra than previously. But I challenge others to find the Bogong Moth sculptures in the dead of night. And a heads-up from the organisers might have been appreciated by some of the venues. Having four deranged people running around the war memorial yelling “have you found the gun yet” seemed to unsettle the lone security guard on duty.

The last leg was on mountain bike and apparently designed to break whatever spirit you had left by sending you over the tallest peaks in Canberra to the finish line. And break it did with me dreading every step my trashed feet had to take in stiff bike shoes up the unclimbable climbs. This was when team captain Kohler’s leadership skills came to the fore. Withholding the gory details of the impending route while providing encouragement to keep us going when the next wall of dirt appeared. I shed a few tears, not for the first time during the race. I find this strange as it does nothing to help the situation. It’s not a full-on sob which makes it hard to breathe and requires cessation of movement. Just the odd tear trickling down the cheek. Was it self-pity? That thought that I was hurting so much more than anyone else? After a number of these races I know that’s not true. Or maybe relief knowing that it would all be over soon.

We crossed the finish line in third place but were bumped up to second by the time adjustment from being delayed with our paddle bags, and the two hour penalty imposed on the Wild Earth team as they forgot some of their maps and were given replacements by the organisers. I was uneasy about that placing as, physically and tactically, we were the third best team. But as there were no prizes for second place it was merely pride on the line.

It’s taken me a while to work out what this race meant to me or how I had come out the other end. At times I thought this was my last race. The negative thoughts I was having meant I just wasn’t cut out for expedition racing. Aren’t you supposed to be a hard-arse to get through these things and spend the whole time going ‘hell yeah, bring it on’ and laughing in the face of adversity? All I had in my head was a list of excuses and reasons to give about why I couldn’t finish – work stress, relationship issues, injuries, bad weather. These were to blame for my poor performance. These were the things which had made me mentally and physically weaker than I ever remember being. But then the feeling on the third day when, despite all these things, I was still hanging in there. A feeling of invincibility. There’s nothing I can’t take. I’m in absolute rubbish form but I’m still here and I’m going to finish. This is what ultra-endurance events have over shorter events. Not everyone can be fast. But with preparation, I believe everyone can complete one of these things if they set their mind to it and are prepared to suffer through the bad times. (*For those who fell down on the navigation, I can’t help you. This remains a dark art to me and I’m so lucky to have fallen in with good map readers!)

I was recounting the experience to my sports psychologist the following week:
“So you know how I’m supposed to be doing 30 minutes of mindfulness practice every day? Well I may be falling short on that (because who the hell has half an hour to sit quietly and focus on their breathing??). But I did get at least 24 hours of being very ‘present in the moment’ and in touch with my bodily sensations so that’s effectively 48 days-worth of practice, right?”
He seemed sceptical. But the primary thought I have about the event: I needed that.

Thanks to my team mates – Jarad Kohler, Ian Franzke and Tom Chadbourne.
Thanks to my sponsors – Ride Mechanic, FC Sports & Events, NS Dynamics, CEP Australia, Infinit Nutrition Australia, JP Rutkowski & Co.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Swiss Epic

Arriving in Geneva airport after 30 hours of travel I received the news that only one of my two pieces of luggage had made it from Hobart. If my bike had missed the solitary daily connection from Abu Dhabi then I’d miss the mandatory bike check on the Sunday and forfeit Monday’s prologue at the Perskindol Swiss Epic. Luckily it was my clothes which had been delayed which, while not awesome, were easier to replace than a bike. Or at least they would have been had we not been in a tiny Swiss village on a Sunday when absolutely nothing was opened. With many kind offers from other racers to loan me kit, mine was eventually delivered at 2am the morning of the race start which was cutting it fairly fine.

Originally paired with my great Brisbane riding mate, Marto, we had signed up for the ‘Heaven’ package which included 5 star hotels with every manner of sauna and Jacuzzi, as well as a daily post-stage massage and fluffy white robes. I had never seen the point of those wanky hotels, but have now been educated. They are amazing. How I have survived 39 years without a daily lemon salt scrub in a steam room is a mystery. Unfortunately Marto did not get to share in the experience as he required shoulder surgery after almost ripping his arm of racing gravity enduro. Due to the Swiss Epic’s ‘no refunds’ policy, my partner, John, reluctantly (cough, cough) took Marto’s place.

We had entered the Flow event – 280km of riding with 7500m of vertical ascent and 15000 descent, made possible by neutral zones where we would be transported by bus or lift to a higher point for extra downhill fun. The traditional Epic of 350km with 12,000m of grovelling is available to those who really hate fun. It was easy to pick which event riders were doing by their bike setup. One hundred millimetre travel cross-country machines with ‘sneeze and they puncture’ narrow tyres versus 120-150mm forks with dropper posts and 2.4 inch wide knobbly rubber.

I’ve never paid much attention to things which can vastly change the capabilities of the same bike. A beefier front end and wider tyres can transform an XC bike to a more confident descender with a small weight penalty. This was the choice to be made. Lightweight for the still considerable climbing or a setup to make up time on the descents? The Flow race is the most balanced format I’ve ever completed between climbing and descending while the Epic still favours the skinny mountain goats.

Prologue – Grachen – 18km, +650m / -1150m

Warming up in the town we boarded a gondola and were deposited at 2100m. The Prologue course went straight up a climb to 2500m where someone had misplaced most of the oxygen. Gasping,  we caught a few of the riders who started before us in the time-trial and were nailing the downhill when the hydraulics in my rear brake took a short holiday. If you know anything about riding then you absolutely don’t want to be front-braking on a steep slope over wet tree roots. After a minute of furious pumping my brakes returned and we finished with a 15 second lead over a Belgian pair in the mixed category. We had passed them on the climbs but after they rocketed past us on the descents we knew we were in for six days of hot competition.

Not a bad warm up spot. Start of the prologue

That afternoon we retired to the spa room of the Gracherhof trying to work out the correct order of the stations. We settled for 40 C sauna, 60 C steam room and finished with an 87 C sauna to get the edges super crispy. In between we subjected ourselves to a cubicle which sprayed ice cold water from multiple jets doing our best Wim Hoff breathing.

Stage 1 – Grachen to Leukerbad -72kms, +1600m / -4050m

Having the advantage on the climbs we figured this was our day to make a good gap on second place. We were at breakfast at 6am for an 8am start. Our race issue bags would be transported between hotels as part of the organisation. It was difficult having so many options at the buffets and declining them (including champagne) in favour of race-performance options.

At the 15km point, while taking a sweeping right-hand corner, I was suddenly laying on the ground. Thinking my cleat had come out of my pedal I realised my whole pedal had come off the spindle. With no tech station until 62km I had no option but to leave the pedal attached to my shoe, slide it back on the spindle and try to ride holding it on with my adductor. This was semi-successful on the 10km climb but downright dangerous on the technical descents of which there were many. Quite a few times I’d be hanging over my rear wheel negotiating a steep section only to have my pedal slip off and end up with my tread massaging my chamois. Not wanting our race to be over on only the second day, I persevered until the neutral section where the mechanic fortunately had some new pedals and cleats for purchase. Buying in Swiss francs hurts but, to be honest, he could have charged much more to desperate racers. Not Chain Reaction prices but I've paid more at a local bike store.

47kms holding this on with my inner thigh. Not recommended.

Being attached to my bike for the last descent brought the insanity factor back down. The trails are very challenging though and I tripoded switchbacks and ran some sections. To only lose a minute to the Belgian team with all our issues was unbelievable.

We checked into our favourite hotel of the whole trip. Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes is a proper 5 star venue with a thermal spa and pool with the most unbelievably powerful massage jets. (NB: that may or may not be their intended purpose but the wattage on those babies will have your ITBs singing). Physiotherapy students perform massage duties at the hotels but their effectiveness is hit-and-miss. There’s only so many times you can say “you can go harder” before you surrender to a treatment better classified as relaxation. I did have a karate black-belt find a spot in my butt that had me tapping out though.

Stage 2 – Leukerbad – 52km, +1050m / -3550m

A circuit of the Leukerbad surrounds was on Wednesday’s agenda. With minimal climbing we knew we’d lose time on the general classification so we focused on staying upright and crossing fingers for no more mechanical issues. John did get a small puncture but after a minute of doing the Stan’s shuffle, it sealed and we continued. On the whole the course was marked well but a small lapse in concentration and it was easy to take the wrong track. One left arrow means turn. Two means pull on the handbrake and turn HARD. We had a few overshoots and a couple of WTFs in dead end streets but it was a common story for everyone.

The last uplift took us to 2300m. We hadn’t packed jackets as it was relatively warm in the valley. Now it was snowing at the peak and John wrestled two garbage bags from a reluctant feed-zone attendant to use as ponchos. Many people admired our stylish threads which were effective on the chilly descent but not particularly aero.

It was at the summit that we encountered the gluggy mud typical of agricultural regions of Switzerland. It contained a fair portion of cow manure which you could really taste when if flicked up into your mouth. John deeply regretted his choice of narrow profile Rocket Ron as a front tyre and made a beefier purchase after the stage. Sliding our way down the root-littered mud chutes, it was another second place for us, now 1.5 minutes behind the leaders overall.

Stage 3 – Leukerbad – 35k, +800 / -1800

Due to the forecast inclement weather, this stage was modified from the original plan. Fresh snow fell daily on the mountain tops and with torrential rain on the way a portion of the climb was taken out while we used a lower uplift to avoid the worst of the weather. We celebrated our first mechanical-free day. While it was cold at the start, we missed the opening of the heavens which caught out slower riders.

Before the event I was unsure about the format which effectively broke the day into two to three stages with untimed uplifts between. Rather than making it easier, it was balls-out racing the whole time, like doing multiple XCO races after sitting down just long enough for the legs to completely cool and stiffen up. We rode the shuttles with the same crew each day and this formed the main social opportunity. The top three mens and mixed pairs swapped stories and trash talked and hung out a little too long in the feed zones. It was easy to overdo the snacks so everyone’s pants were little tighter at the end of the week. This was a very different vibe to the ‘must kill’ competition of more pure endurance racing formats. We surprisingly made up time on this stage and now sat only 15 seconds adrift of the green leaders jersey.

Leukerbad is surrounded by stunning bare rock mountains. After significant rainfall these become adorned with numerous waterfalls streaming down. Soaking in the heated pool admiring the show was a special afternoon.

Thermal pool at Hotel Les Sources Des Alpes. I'll just leave this here...

Stage 4 – Leukerbad to Zermatt – 65km, +1300m/-3250m

Any stage with over 1000m of climbing represented an chance to put time into our more enduro skilled competition. We went out hard on the first 8km ascent only to find that the Belgians had learned to climb overnight. There must have been something special in the bircher muesli that morning as the gap at the start of the downhill was not what we hoped it would be.

We left the wet trails of Leukerbad and entered the dry, rocky terrain on the way to Zermatt. It was the coldest day by far but brilliantly clear and sunny. Thankfully this coincided with the only open chairlift of the event. As each rider had to balance their bike on the crossbar of their lift it was slow progress up the mountain with the lift stopping every few metres to let another rider get into position. It was almost pleasant swinging high up in a sunny spot but when I moved into the shade of a tree or rock I was close to hypothermia.

The previous day we had battled cows and goats on the trail. Today it was hikers, strewn across the path. Although there were course arrows, there were no signs warning people of the race and bikes screaming down the trails. Quite a few walkers were sent diving into bushes with their hiking poles.

If the Belgians had learned to climb, we had improved our descending and moved into the lead by 30 seconds. While the other race categories were almost settled by the last day, ours was still a tight battle. With everything on the line and needing our bodies to be at 110% the next day we did what any Flow rider would do – sank some Belgian beers and checked out our hotel amenities. The Zermatterhof is regarded as the top hotel in Zermatt. It even offers the chance to be collected from the train station by a white horse-drawn carriage. I’ve no idea where the bike boxes would go though.

The town is car-free save for the small electric taxis ferrying people around. Ambling the streets browsing shops we couldn’t possibly afford to buy from was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Stage winners a few times. Swiss army knives and cheese. What else?

Stage 5 – Zermatt – 36km, +1250m / -1900m

On paper this stage suited our strength. It started with a 14km climb which began at a friendly gradient before a horrific final 4km on gravel which saw me and many racers over-geared. The last kilometres ticked over at glacial pace but this was our only chance to get a gap. With 25km done at the solitary neutral transfer we had a 4 minute lead for the day. It seemed the win was sealed and we could be able to ride the remaining descent relaxed.

View from the top of the last descent into Zermatt. We were lucky enough to get a cloudless day. Great move by the organisers having this in the untimed zone.

We caught the tube-train, buried deep inside the mountain to the top. Luckily we had stopped for photos the previous day as the Matterhorn was obscured by cloud. Some final group photos with our racing companions, a ‘see you at the bottom’ and we were on our way. We weren’t far into the sharp rocky descent when I heard the heart-breaking hiss of liquid latex escaping from my rear tyre. Praying it would seal we weren’t that lucky. We set about putting a tube in, slowed by cold fingers and recalcitrant CO2 cannisters and pumps. Four minutes was enough to cover the time the Belgians would chop out of us on the descent but possibly not a puncture as well. With my tyre pumped up to 35 PSI I then had to pick smooth lines around the sharp edged drains on the trail. A second flat would see us entirely out of the running. There was a lot more up-hill than we counted on and our legs were blown after the morning’s effort. Once on the flat John killed himself while I tried to hang on (a consistent theme of the week). Unfortunately we’d lost too much time with the puncture and missed the overall win by a mere 33 seconds after 6 days of racing.

Honestly, it was an absolutely shite way to lose. But we weren’t the only ones with bad luck. The top UCI women’s team had multiple flats and a cracked rim during the event and kept putting out their best every day trying, unsuccessfully, to make the time back. Racing is unpredictable and you can never give up as luck can go either way.

I’m stoked with how we handled the challenges during the week. Something learned from adventure racing when things are never perfect. The trails and the event were incredible. It was everything a Swiss race promises to be and we’re returning to Australia with that adjusted perception of ‘steep’ one gets after riding in the alps. At the post-race dinner we were informed of the event’s sale to the Ironman company along with the Cape Epic and The Pioneer. There were some predictably apathetic responses to the news. But hopefully the formula doesn’t change too much as they’ve almost nailed it. Certainly for the Flow, the balance of tarmac, 4WD track and singletrail was spot on. The towns we visited with quintessentially Swiss while having all we needed outside the race.

One of the few times I got to ride at the front. Only for the cameras.

The mixed Flow category was never going to involve racing for sheep stations. However it was great to get prizes reflecting the local area. The engraved Swiss Army knife, Victorinox multi-tool and Scott helmet are all welcome additions to the kit. The four kilos of cheese…hmm, we’ll find a space for it.

We flew Etihad into Geneva which is an easy train and bus ride to Grachen and Zermatt. It’s worth getting there a day or two early, especially if your luggage doesn’t arrive with you. Thanks to Flight Centre Sport Events for the travel organisation and race jerseys. Also to Virgin Australia for sorting out my extra baggage allowance via Twitter. Great service.

As always my sponsors:

Fuelled by Infinit Australia
Lubricated by Ride Mechanic (bike and body lube)
Suspension by NS Dynamics
Recovery compression gear by CEP Australia
Fitness training by Bike Rite