“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.