Despite this, I found myself standing at Coffs harbour in the sideways rain, freezing my ass off waiting for the delayed start of the highly modified and shortened 2017 edition of Geoquest. This is my third time at this event and the curse of the weather gods continues. Each year we've had a changed or cancelled ocean paddle which begs the question as to why we keep trying to have them. This year our team decided on fast boats as we planned to have a good crack at the win. Fast also means highly unstable and in the squally conditions this would be challenging. The initial ocean paddle from Sawtell had been cancelled and Plan B was a few laps of Coffs Harbour as a token offering to appease said angry gods and justify some teams driving 16 hours with just so they could have boats at the event.
Finally underway after a passing storm the boys, John and Ray, cleared the breakers while Gary and I were pummelled repeatedly in the surf. It’s not until I’m in such a position that I really respect the power of the ocean. I’ll admit – I was barely controlling the urge to run back to shore and pull the pin on the whole affair. After several attempts and boats to the head (OK I now see why we have to wear helmets for ocean legs), we remounted and quickly worked our way towards the front. The boys were wrestling with their ski and the best they could say about it was that it was easy to get BACK into. We completed our three laps of the harbour but were confused when we saw all the teams heading back in to shore. We found out later that the paddle had been cancelled shortly after we had begun, but the race was not restarted meaning that teams that were behind us were now ahead of us having not completed the whole course. We hoped the results would be adjusted at the end to account for this as this seemed like the fair thing to do.
Some interesting techniques for a shore landing
The following beach run impressed on us that the torrential rain was set to accompany racers through the whole weekend. Having done some wet ARs I could only be thankful it wasn't also cold. The conditions were actually perfect as the temperature stayed constant throughout, as did my wardrobe. I wore the same race kit and thermal for 16+ hours only augmenting with a windproof jacket at night. Sure, the rain was irritating. But a race where you're alternately too hot and too cold necessitating frequent costume changes really gets my goat.
On to the bikes and we picked up places quickly, passing Peak Adventure fixing a broken chain and joining race leaders Thunderbolt just before transition. Unfortunately we'd been too fast for our support crew and after waiting for 5 minutes at the next TA we decided to do the 8k foot orienteering in our bike shoes rather than risk losing more time. There's nothing quite like running on a hard-pack surface in $400 stiff carbon soles to really work the calves. By the end of the leg it felt like all the bones in my feet had been broken. To see the leaders leaving transition just ahead of us and actually passing PA during the OT was unbelievable. I can only put it down to our nav team being on fire. This was probably my favourite moment of our race. We didn't get hung up on the problem. We focused on a solution, got to work, and in the end it was approximately OK. It was approached with the same optimistic sarcasm that has become characteristic of great teams I've been in.
Gary: "Running in bike shoes is awesome! I'm never bringing running shoes again".
And think of the time we saved at the next TA not changing shoes. What it lacked in comfort it made up for in efficiency.
Our next bike leg played to our strengths as we were unperturbed in the muddy conditions. Nailing a slick, steep descent while others were walking or crashing in the bushes we went into the lead just on sunset. Unfortunately Gary must have voided his seat warranty as it fell off toward the end of the ride. Our support crew were tasked with trying to source a new one at 9pm on a Saturday night. Their alternate plan was to gaffa tape a running shoe to the top of the seatpost which I would have been interested to see trialled. Amazingly they came through with the goods with assistance from one of the half course teams. Heading out on the run leg, scaling the same muddy chute we'd just ridden down, involved several backward slides and grabbing on to any tussock of grass or embedded rock I could find. It crossed my mind that Craig Bycroft had planned it like this as it seemed characteristic of his course design. However I dismissed the possibility that he'd been able to arrange the unseasonal monsoon. The descents on foot were akin to skiing and we experimented with several different styles while trying to avoid knocking our team mates down like skittles.
We were making good progress but came unstuck with some navigation, second guessed ourselves, stopped in the forest pondering for a while and then back tracked. It was enough for Thunderbolt to catch us and then we both chose the wrong hellish water course to climb up and down which cost at least 20 minutes. Once we'd found the correct CP, we'd been joined by Peak Adventure and BMX bandits. It's quite disheartening when you've had a lead then suddenly it's evaporated. The legs start to feel heavier and everything suddenly hurts more. Having such a big group also leads to group-think and mistakes because everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing instead of looking at the map. We fixed that by breaking off from the crowd and going totally the wrong way to the bottom of a hill then having to climb back out by which time all the other teams had gone. You can thank us later guys (Thunderbolt actually did).
I neglected to mention the archery challenge. Probably because I sucked at it and it was impeding my path to more food at the TA
Fatigue was setting in, not because it was late but because the race had been so fast. Flood warnings had forced organisers to remove the remaining paddle legs and a MTB leg had been cancelled to appease the single-track fairies in the wet weather. A short course meant higher speeds and it certainly didn't feel like the relaxed pace of previous races which went for 24+ hours. We would be home well in time for breakfast. A few more mistakes on navigation, a missed fire-road and we were finally back at TA. Insert non-descript mountain bike leg here and we were on the run leg to the finish line. Our legs and feet were blown from our bike-shoe hike and now 12km of sand running stood between us and the end of pain. Unfortunately we also stood between BMX bandits and 3rd place so instead of a comfortable shuffle we had to push with every ounce of remaining energy as they pursued us like I planned to pursue a steak when this was all over.
My hip flexors and adductors were agony and the monotonous running was like being stabbed in the groin for 2 hours. I wanted a break from it. A hill to walk up, some rocks to climb. Anything. But there was only the sand which, thank Christ, was wet from the outgoing tide. We were encouraged by the words of our team captain - "They're just behind us. Run you bastards! "
Do you remember that scene in Lord of the rings when Liv Tyler has to get across the river with Frodo before the ghouls got them? Well that was us making it to the river mouth at 1am for a swim across to the finish line in Sawtell. The strong tide meant running 300m upstream and hoping that was enough buffer before you were sucked out to sea. Not a great swimmer at the best of times, when I'm fully dressed wearing a backpack and gloves I'm bloody hopeless. I managed to flail about enough to make it across though and we crossed under the inflatable arch in third place.
Imagine this at 1am - that was us. We were in phantom mode and weren't captured in a single photo during the race. It's like it never happened. My feet say differently though.
It was bittersweet. We'd made the podium but knew exactly where a better placing had been lost. We all agreed that it's the hardest we'd been pushed in one of these events and that we were completely buckled. The close racing had added a new dimension and really brought us to the limits of what we were willing to tolerate. I liked it. This partially compensated for the lack of technical elements in the 2017 course in terms of off-track check points. Not that I’d ever wish to do the Punchbowl Rogaine of Geo 2016 again, but I did yearn for a little more bush-bashing than we had this year. Signed fire-roads made some parts as adventurous as reading a Refidex.
Usually, my justification for the expense of racing is the opportunity to be taken on a journey of an area by the race and experience the best the region has to offer. This time, the course seemed a blur at race speed and we didn’t even manage the usual banter as we were too busy gasping for air. That time at 3am when you start to discuss the big issues and examine the meaning of life during some lengthy hike or river paddle – we were already finished and in bed. On the whole I was left…unsatisfied. Still (metaphorically) hungry. Which is a shame because I have enjoyed this event in the past.
It must be hell to be a race organiser at the mercy of climatic conditions. I believe the set course the Geocentric crew had planned would have been kick-ass. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a plan B so when the heavens opened there were few options left to them besides cancelling the affected courses. The fact that the paddle was declared null and void during the event and no time adjustments were made left a bad taste for a lot of racers, not just those in the hunt for a podium. Teams set themselves appropriate goals of top half of the field, beating their mates or just ‘not last’. To have their placing affected by an abandoning of the basic concepts of racing – that everyone start from the same position and complete the same length course – I think disappointed many. There is a big push to have race referees introduced into events like this. They were plentiful in previous races I’ve done, especially in China. Although we’re not racing for sheep stations, the essence of sport is to have consistent rules for all to ensure fairness. I’d definitely like to see a referee system implemented in the near future.
Thanks to our support crew Mark and Jeremy. You guys went beyond the call of duty. The chicken rolls were the best things I never knew I wanted. The team – Gary, John and Ray – I know you gave your all and it was a pleasure to suffer with you again.
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