Sunday, November 20, 2016


“Top 10 would be nice” I said. Everyone laughed. Yes it was very na├»ve given it was my first full length expedition (XPD) race. Gary and I had only raced together once at Geoquest 48 hour in June. We had known our other two team mates – Tim and John – for three whole days before we were to toe the start line at the World XPD champs. Four hundred athletes descended on the quaint coastal town of Ulladulla including the best adventure racers in the world. Clearly the inventory staff at the supermarkets had not been notified and race staples such as creamed rice and Ziploc bags were quickly sold out.

Looking fresh before being pummelled into the ground by the race

With equipment checks and food shopping the lead up days went quickly. Although it had no bearing on the race, the prologue was entertaining and meant to induct the internationals into Aussie culture. Our designated combined team didn’t fare well after a ‘plugger’ blowout during the beach esky-dash and the South African’s inability to swallow a Vegemite sandwich. (NB. Vegemite apparently invokes the gag reflex in the Proteas which could be useful knowledge).

On the few previous ARs I’d done, maps were distributed the day before meaning hours spent that night working out the best route. This time we were told in advance the order, distance and elevation of each leg but would only have a few hours to work on the maps before boarding the bus to Jervis Bay in the morning for the race start.

We probably should have tried out the provided plastic skis before the race to work out the most efficient paddler distribution. Each team got a shit boat with a rudder and a more shit yellow boat with no rudder. Starting with two people in each it was a sub-optimal combination which team leader, Gary, pointed out:

“You’ve got the heavy guy in the front ya dickheads!”

Clear, open communication like this was one of the strengths of our team. In the middle of the bay we shuttled positions with three in the yellow tub and Gary, a strong paddler, doing it alone in the ski. We actually started gaining on the world champions in this formation and we were 6th out of the water. So surprised to be anywhere close to the front we did what any self-respecting team would do and blew our doors off over the next few legs.

Gary, smashing it solo. Don't you love those glasses? Sorry ladies, he's taken.

Everyone had a bad leg at some point and our position in the race fluctuated to reflect this. We tore the first MTB leg apart but I suffered on the next night’s ride with a knife-like pain in my back. My feet were blistered from the previous hike and I was getting towed up the hills while walking my bike which was new territory for me. It felt like we did half of the 2000m of vertical ascent on foot on the impossibly steep fireroads.

In adventure racing it takes a while to come to terms with the motives of the course designers. They are intent on making some things so ridiculously hard that you crack. To rub salt in the wound you have paid them to intentionally screw you over so there’s no point complaining either. I can’t fully describe one hike-a-bike section except to say that, at one point, I was using my $9000 bike to jam between trees and act as a safety rail to prevent me sliding over a cliff in the dark. I questioned course designer, Craig Bycroft, about this later:

Me: “So have you actually been through that section?”
Craig: “Yes”
Me: “With a bike?”
Craig: “Oh god no!”

One of our best legs was the long hike starting with a brutal climb up the Budawang Range. Trekking through the ferns and rainforest this was the part of Shoalhaven I’d come to see. The coolness didn’t last long though as we crested onto the plateau and the full force of the midday sun hit. We filled water bladders from streams and soaked our caps to cool us down.  Surrounded by towering sandstone bluffs and being torn at by underbrush, I remarked to one of the Euros that this was traditional Aussie scrub. They seemed impressed by this and started taking photos while I kept adding to the painful welts on my thighs by trudging on.

Our lead navigator, Gary, had been in a metaphorical hole but was now, two Cokes later, revitalised and led us efficiently through one of the trickier parts of the course. Many teams lost time here due to ambiguous maps and overgrown tracks.  A raised boardwalk section was so covered in vegetation you weren’t quite sure where the boards were and risked snapping an ankle if you stepped off the side.

We were close to several teams and would overtake one at a slow jog only to be overtaken later during a walking break. It was like the world’s slowest game of leap-frog. Teams enjoyed new conversation partners after so long with the same four people. One benefit of having strangers as team mates – all our stories were new.  It’s the weirdest way to get to know someone. We progressed very quickly from “Hi, good to meet you” to burping, farting and discussing in detail the type of bodily function we would be carrying out in the bushes.

Enjoying the Shoalhaven weather. I remember being warm for exactly one leg out of 14.

Arriving at the Nerriga transition area (TA), we built our bikes up and headed out at dusk. Our sleep strategy at this point had been to skip the first night entirely and grab two hours in a tent on the second night.  Heading into night three we all suffered from the sleep-monsters. The long blinks, the hallucinations. At one point I was mesmerised by an impossibly large wombat just staring back at me. But then everyone else saw it too – nope, that one was real. We were doing zig-zags across the road and the boring 70km on tarmac did nothing to keep the fatigued mind awake. We decided on a 20 minute power nap and just lay down beside the road and slept.  It’s amazing what 20 minutes and a couple of No Doze can do and we punched out the rest of the ride to arrive at the Bungonia Caves.

Caving was the ‘mystery discipline’ and conjured up visions of tame family-oriented walks through spacious caverns with requisite stalactites and the occasional bat.  Even the briefing we got at the TA indicated this was a bit of fun and we should wiz through finding check points and still have time for a nap in our mandatory 5 hours we had to spend there.

The first cave we went to revealed this was a vastly inaccurate portrayal. Having a fear of heights I was overjoyed that caving had replaced abseiling as a leg. However when faced with the tiny subterranean crack I was required to squeeze through I realised I may be equally claustrophobic. It was unbelievable that people not only go in there, but that they do this for fun. Teams lost hours trying to find the caves which were just small holes in the ground. But then some of their team mates were too big to fit through to gaps so they had to find an additional cave to make up their mandatory five check points. Luckily we had John, whose super-power is apparently sensing the location of caves, navigating through their many rooms to quickly locate the CP all the while singing obscure 80’s hits in a Scottish lilt. Grabbing 20 minutes sleep afterwards we saw teams which had been hours ahead of us only just heading out on the next leg.

Boulder-hopping for an indeterminably long time (I stopped wearing a watch so had no idea how long we took to do things), we finally inflated the pack-rafts and headed down the Shoalhaven river. We had only negotiated a few rapids when Tim started vomiting over the side after complaining of feeling unwell. Being in the other boat I could observe from a safe distance the most amount of fluid I’ve ever seen come out of someone. My fear that it might spell the end of our race was unfounded as Tim pushed on like the hard-nut he is.

I imagine pack-rafting is quite fun when there is substantial water but we spent the time trying to shuffle over rocks, going down rapids backwards and walking when the water got too shallow. Our raft got a sizeable hole in it and after 8 hours of sitting in water we arrived at the TA after sunset and all the heat promptly left my body. Shivering uncontrollably and having no dry clothes I headed to the warmth of the disabled toilet and disrobed to get out of my wet gear. I then realised I would have to get back into my wet gear and warm up before we started the 10 hour kayak leg. After much discussion and Tim still not feeling 100%, three of us ended up huddled under space blankets and slept on the toilet floor for 5 hours. It’s strange how completely OK with this I was. XPD really does change your priorities.

Waking at 4am we were on the water shooting rapids once the sun rose. If the whole 56kms were like this it would have been fun but we soon hit the dreaded flat water. Just kilometres of monotonous paddling with sleep deprivation playing tricks with our minds. Animals and other creatures morphed out of the cliff faces and we chewed up time pointing them out to each other. This leg will be remembered for the singing, shouting and shit talk of half the team to try to stay awake. I kept eating No Doze like Tic Tacs, tried paddling while ‘resting my eyes’ and almost fell out of the boat a couple of times. My hallucinations weren’t as impressive as some, but it was entertaining watching my brain try to make sense out of what was happening. It was like a last line of defence against forced wakefulness: “Ok, you won’t let me sleep? Here’s…a unicorn! Ha!” Not much of a shock and awe campaign I must say.

Glad I didn't have to do every paddle leg like this. River crossing during a hike. Only 3 seats so the smallest goes on the back.

So glad to reach Nowra and never have to touch the boats again, we stomped the MTB with John drilling it at the front and the rest of us holding a wheel. It seemed like the easiest 100km I’d ever done even though there was 1800m climbing in it. The only hiccup here was the five minutes I spent crying like a 4 year old after my feet swelled in my shoes and I felt like a Chinese-foot-binding victim. My entire team laughed at me writhing on the ground and said “Welcome to XPD racing”. Just part of the experience apparently.

Eighteen kilometres doesn’t sound like a long trek but after four and a bit days of racing we hit the beach at night to be greeted with sideways rain. Leaning into the wind it felt like every force of nature was trying to prevent us from reaching the finish line. I can understand the vision of the organisers to have teams finishing with a run on the beach and a couple of river mouth crossings in the warm sunshine. But at midnight in a gale the effect was lost on us. After trying to find a shallow crossing to keep mostly dry I gave up, stripped off and breast-stroked across with my backpack in the dark.  I never miss a chance to get the kit off in AR it seems.

Everyone's favourite thing - sand running. Can you tell how much fun we're having?

Crossing the line after 4 days and 14 hours was a strange mix of emotions. Yes I was tired, sore and very over being wet and cold. But it was also sad the adventure had finished. We sat on the couches for the traditional pizza and bubbly and chatted to Craig Bycroft about the course. I’m always so impressed by the Geocentric crew and their eagerness to talk to racers and get feedback on the event.
There were so many highs and lows that are now fragments in a fatigued-addled brain. They were so vivid when we were still in the ‘race bubble’ reliving our experience. Even a day after arriving home though, the details are starting to fade. The thing I’ll remember is the fun we had as a team. I was incredibly lucky to race with three very experienced guys and I’m so grateful they helped me through with a minimum of piss-taking.

Gary – I’ll work on faffing less in TAs and always carry a spare thermal

Tim – I won’t hassle you for carrying too much food and then scab it all off you when I’ve run out

John – Sorry again for putting a hole in your dry bag. But you did hit me in the head with the paddle a few too many times

To get 11th at the World Championships in my first XPD race is incredible. To do it as a newly formed team is even more impressive. I’m pretty excited to see what we can accomplish if we can ‘get the band back together’. It’s just outside my Top 10 wish so of course I’m a little dissatisfied. But I’m always dissatisfied, that’s why I keep lining up for the next one.

Total distances:

115km trek
322km MTB
185km paddle
5km caving

Thanks to:

Team mates – Gary Sutherland, Tim Sikma and John Laughlin. Just no words. Thanks

Craig and Louise from Geocentric – awesome course and event. Well done guys

Trevor Mullens from Tiger Adventure – You outdid yourself with team mate matching this time

Infinit Nutrition – looked forward to the MUD on my Weetbix on every trek

Ride Mechanic – Owen went beyond the call of duty with a 10pm drop off to get me more Moonshine and Bike Mix for the race

Liv Bikes – Everyone who picked up my Lust said “oh my god, it’s so light”. Perfect bike for the job

NS Dynamics – suspension service and tuning

CEP Compression socks - for racing and recovery. Minimal fat feet

The Trail Co. - The Salomon S-Lab Wings is my favourite shoe